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Collision may fuel broader SE Asian debates

A Chinese garrison in the disputed Spratly Islands
A Chinese garrison in the disputed Spratly Islands  

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Spratlys Islands the key

Frequent incursions

Collision inevitable

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HONG KONG, China -- While the timing of the collision between a U.S. spy plane and Chinese jet fighter is extremely poor -- coming at a time when U.S.-Chinese relations are severely strained -- some say the location is even more inappropriate.

Analysts say that as dealings between the U.S. and China plunge to their worst point in years, the collision between the U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter is also likely to fan a simmering feud among several Asian nations over disputed territories in the South China Sea.

China is one of five governments locked in an argument over control of all or parts of the South China Sea, where the collision occurred about 100km off the coast of Hainan Island on Sunday morning.

Dr Jean Pierre Cabestan, the head of the Hong Kong-based French Center for Research on Contemporary China, says China is one of three entities -- the other two being Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway state, and Vietnam -- to claim sovereignty over the entire stretch of water.

Meanwhile, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines claim ownership of selected parts of the South China Sea.

At the center of the debate, figuratively if not quite geographically, are the tiny Spratly Islands.

Spratlys Islands the key

The Spratlys comprise a group of more than 100 small islands and reefs, of which about 45 are claimed and occupied by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

All of the Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam; parts of them are claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines, and in 1984, Brunei established an exclusive fishing zone, which encompasses Louisa Reef in the southern Spratly Islands.

They have been the cause of many overheated tempers in the region, with Vietnam and China twice clashing over the archipelago, in 1988 and 1992. On both occasions China emerged the victor.

Cabestan says China's growing profile reflects its attempts to exert more political and military influence over the Asia-Pacific rim.

"This whole incident could not have come at a worse time," he says. "The relationship between the U.S. and China is more tense because of the arrest of the U.S. academics, and then you have a new administration coming in the U.S. that seems much less enthusiastic about China and that is seriously considering selling arms to Taiwan."

"Meanwhile, China is becoming more and more hostile to the U.S. as it tries to exert more influence over Asia both politically and militarily."

Strategically, analysts say the South China Sea is extremely important because it dominates South East Asian commerce.

Frequent incursions

Incursions are frequent in the disputed territory around the Spratlys, which lie several hundred kilometers to the south-east of Hainan Island.

Around the islands are some of the world's richest fishing grounds, with massive reserves of oil and gas thought to be under the seabed.

The territory straddles strategically vital sea-lanes with around a quarter of the world's total shipping trade passing through the area every year.

Cabestan says there is nothing new about patrols by U.S. spy planes along China's southern coastline, which monitor both electronic activity and the traffic of air and sea vessels, and nor is there anything unusual about interceptors being sent to intimidate the surveillance aircraft.

"What is new is the aggressive nature of the (Chinese) interceptors. They want to show the U.S. not only that they are around, but also that they will tolerate less and less these patrols around China, which they want to push away," he says.

The U.S. says it recently sent a protest message to China, complaining that the interceptors were beginning to behave too aggressively, perhaps dangerously.

"China wants to gain more control over the South China Sea so it can project more of its forces in the region. As far as civilian ships and aircraft are concerned there is no suggestion that they are being restricted, but in terms of military craft there is a clear change in China's attitude."

Collision inevitable

Some defense experts say a collision of the kind that occurred on Sunday was inevitable because the U.S. has been aggressively spying on Chinese facilities with Beijing increasingly on the alert against U.S. espionage.

"It obviously happened because America for many years has been having such flights and China probably for many years has been sending up planes whenever (U.S.) planes get close to China's international borders," said Jonathan Unger, head of the Contemporary China Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra.

In a carefully worded statement to a press conference on Tuesday, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry said the U.S. spy plane "rammed a Chinese plane in the air space above the sea near China, then entered Chinese air space without China's permission and landed on a Chinese airport".

Compared with previous assertions that the collision may have happened in Chinese territory, the spokesman carefully pointed out that the incident occurred outside of Chinese airspace before the U.S. plane limped to an airbase on nearby Hainan Island.

"China seems to want to make the South China Sea the domain of their own navy and air force," says Cabestan. "That would allow them complete military dominance over the entire South China Sea."

Row grows over disputed Spratly island
March 21, 2001 | Visions of China: Spratly Islands | 9/27/99
China says Manila's Spratly accusations groundless
November 7, 1998

Spratly Islands. The World Factbook. 2000

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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