Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 2

By David G. Wiencek

The South China Sea is a potential international security flashpoint stemming primarily from several significant territorial disputes between the countries of the region. But recent attention in this area has focused on a different set of concerns. On April 1, 2001, a collision took place between a Chinese F-8/J-8-II fighter and a U.S. EP-3E reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea. The collision sparked an international incident. The Chinese fighter closed to within feet of the U.S. aircraft and then lost control, crashed and damaged the EP-3E, forcing it to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island, where the U.S. crew was detained for eleven days before being returned to the United States unharmed.

While the collision may well have been an isolated incident, it can also be argued that China’s aggressive interception of the EP-3E aircraft was a calculated act of intimidation designed to limit U.S. reconnaissance of Chinese military activities in and around the critical sealanes of the South China Sea. The incident also highlights broader security sensitivities in this vital region and the looming clash of interests between Washington and Beijing.


To date, most interest in the South China Sea has focused on the conflict over the Spratly Islands. This is arguably the most complicated territorial dispute in Asia. Jurisdiction over these islands has been in question for decades. The dispute affects all of Southeast Asia and directly involves five claimants: China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Brunei is often mentioned as a sixth party even though it does not physically occupy any of the contested locations.

The Spratlys sit in the southern reaches of the South China Sea. They consist of over 100 remote islets, sand cays, reefs and rocks, comprising a total land area of no more than a few kilometers in an ocean area of several hundred thousand square kilometers. These tiny islands have little intrinsic value. Yet they have taken on a greater significance for reasons of strategy, economics and nationalism.

Economic interest stems from the large volume of trade shipments that travel through the region. It is estimated that over half the world’s merchant fleet (by tonnage) sails through the South China Sea each year. Some 75 percent of Japan’s oil, for example, is shipped through these sea lanes. Another key reason this area is so important is the potential for oil and natural gas exploitation and access to other valuable maritime resources, such as fisheries.

Nationalism is another factor at work and has resulted in an increased emphasis on maintaining or expanding sovereignty claims, particularly in light of expanding economic zones as provided by the Law of the Sea Convention.

The Spratlys dispute is of key importance to the United States and its allies, particularly in terms of maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight (as seen in the EP-3E incident). American interests also would be directly threatened were Washington’s longtime treaty ally the Philippines to be threatened or attacked.


In addition to these factors, China is clearly pursuing a strategy of expanding its military sphere of influence in the area to include strategic waypoints in the Paracel Islands, in the northern portion of the South China Sea (particularly Woody Island), down through the Spratlys. The Paracels are another disputed island group occupied by China, but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. In the Paracels, the Chinese have established a major presence on Woody Island and have built a 350-meter pier and a 2,600-meter airstrip, which is capable of handling all types of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft. There are also oil tanks, gun emplacements and ammunition storage bunkers, which underline the perception that this island could be used as a staging point to support offensive operations in the Spratlys. We also have recently learned of the presence of Silkworm antiship cruise missile installations on Woody Island. The Silkworm has a range of some fifty-nine miles and could be used to threaten nearby shipping traffic.

A Chinese signals intelligence station, meanwhile, has reportedly been established on Rocky Island, just to the north of Woody Island. Rocky Island is one of the highest points in the area, and thus provides good coverage of military signal activity in this part of the South China Sea.

PLA exercises staged beginning in May 2001 (and continuing at the time of this report) at Dongshan Island off the Chinese coast opposite Taiwan involve a three-service assault designed to simulate an invasion of Taiwan. A U.S. official quoted in The Washington Times on May 30 indicated that the Dongshan exercise was part of a larger war game underway in the South China Sea, which involved PLA naval and air force elements from both Hainan and Woody islands.


The nations involved in the Spratly dispute continue to jockey for position and influence. The number of island occupations sharply increased in the 1980s and continued in the 1990s, and this trend shows no sign of abating.

The drive to occupy pieces of territory has given rise to violent clashes. In 1974, China ejected Vietnam from the Paracels. In 1988, Vietnam and China fought a battle over Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys that resulted in the loss of three Vietnamese ships and over seventy Vietnamese sailors killed or missing.

As is widely known, the confrontation took a dangerous turn in 1995 with China’s takeover of Mischief Reef. Mischief Reef is in the eastern part of the Spratlys and is in the heart of Philippine-claimed waters. The takeover sparked a regional crisis.

Then, in late 1998 and early 1999, with the region distracted by the Asian financial meltdown, new Chinese construction was observed on Mischief Reef. This activity resulted in permanent, multistory structures on concrete platforms and raised heightened worries in Manila and elsewhere about Chinese intentions. The new structures, which Beijing now proudly refers to as “sea bastions,” are fitted with anti-aircraft guns and are large enough to serve as landing pads for military helicopters.

Reports from the Philippines in April 2001 suggest that the facilities on Mischief Reef have been further upgraded with new communications equipment.


In addition to the Mischief Reef tangle, there have been a number of other low-level incidents. In May 1999, for example, two Chinese naval ships allegedly pointed their guns at a grounded Philippine supply ship. Subsequently, a Philippine Navy patrol boat pursued three Chinese fishing boats near Scarborough Shoal, another contested area about 130 miles off the Philippine coast. The Philippine vessel fired warning shots and ended up sinking one of the fishing boats after colliding with it several times. In October 1999, Vietnamese troops fired on a Philippine plane during an overflight. About the same time, Malaysian and Philippine aircraft reportedly came into contact without incident near Investigator (Pawikan) Shoal. A further diplomatic flare-up between Manila and Beijing occurred in March 2000 when a Chinese fishing fleet anchored at Scarborough Shoal. In May 2001, there were fresh reports of some twelve Chinese naval vessels near the Spratlys.

These incidents illustrate how two or more of the disputants could easily back into a confrontation that turns into a wider conflict affecting the entire East and Southeast Asian region.


Beijing has made a vast claim to the entire South China Sea, thus making confidence building measures, such as the long debated “Code of Conduct,” highly problematic and dependent on satisfying its interests. The legal basis of China’s claims has been backed up by a seemingly calculated set of island occupations over time, thus establishing a permanent and continuous military presence in the Spratlys.

China has linked its island occupations with a strategy and force buildup that is designed to project power to the far reaches of the South China Sea and beyond. Beijing is thus positioning itself to exert control–in time–of the region’s vital sealanes and airspace. It views the other claimants as challenging this predominant position.

For these reasons, the United States and other concerned countries need to be proactively involved in pressing the South China Sea claimants to explore ways to mitigate the risk of armed conflict, while pursuing longer-term ways of addressing the underlying diplomatic and economic sources of the disputes. But it is also important that U.S. policymakers reemphasize that Washington will not tolerate any attempt to use force to resolve the disputes or to disrupt the vital sealanes of Southeast Asia. Washington should also continue to show the flag in the South China Sea in support of the principle of freedom of navigation, as well as overflight, as it is now doing in the aftermath of the EP-3E incident.

David G. Wiencek is president of International Security Group, Inc., a consultancy in the Washington area specializing in international political risk assessments and security issues in East and Southeast Asia.