Vital economic issues, the provocative behavior of North Korea and climate change proposals are sure to dominate Chinese President Hu Jintao’s important meetings with President Barack Obama in Washington this week.
But it should be no surprise if at some point during their discussions, quietly out of the public eye, the two men devote time to a territory that encompasses no more than 4 square kilometers of land — a few blocks of Washington in total land mass.
The issue is the Spratly Islands, a chain, depending on tidal currents, of 400 to 750 tiny islands, reefs and atolls spread over 425,000 square kilometers of what is called the South China Sea, all or many of which are claimed by seven countries.
There are two main reasons for the intense interest in these tiny islets, claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Brunei. Though there are rare species, even white peach trees, it’s not a tropical paradise.
One reason is their strategic location. The Spratlys lie across key shipping lanes that carry much of the world’s maritime traffic. While still a weak naval power, China’s leaders clearly see the islands as vital to control or keep within its zone of influence.
The second is potentially rich oil and natural gas deposits. Definitive surveys seem few and far between, but one recent study concluded that the waters contain extensive amounts of natural gas and oil.
Several claimants have built make-shift military installations, even helipads on some islands, most of which lie 600 to 800 miles from mainland China but not far west of the Philippine island of Palawan. The islands have been the focus of several minor flare-ups, usually over military exercises or fishing boat collisions.
The appropriately named Mischief Reef has been the scene of two dust–ups, in 1995 and 1999. In 1988, at Johnson South Reef, Chinese ships sank two Vietnamese ships, killing 70 Vietnamese soldiers.
Tensions over the Spratlys could cause a serious crisis. The respected International Institute for Strategic Studies observed in its 2010 report that “unofficial melees in the South China Sea are likely to be the cause of conflict in the region in the future.”
China’s increasingly aggressive attitude toward peripheral areas such as the Spratlys was evident in its clash last September with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, another chain in the East China Sea. The Japanese Coast Guard arrested — and eventually released — a Chinese fishing boat captain after his trawler ran into a Japanese patrol boat.
China’s interest in the Spratlys reflects its growing appetite for control of natural resources — a clear rationale for its recent clamp on production of rare earth minerals. China’s rapid growth is the key to its political stability, and experts say China’s energy use will double in the next 25 years.
With China so dependent on access to energy, it is not surprising to hear a top Chinese official describe the South China Sea as a core national interest, “on a par with Taiwan and Tibet.”
Another sign of the sensitivity of the Spratlys for China was reflected in its reaction last July to a comment by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On the eve of the annual ASEAN Regional Forum, Ms. Clinton said the United States would be happy to mediate in the South China Sea dispute.
Reflecting China’s preference for bilateral talks, China’s foreign minister quickly labeled her remarks “an attack on China.”
President Obama may hesitate to raise this topic. But, he should do so, and there are two avenues to possible discussion.
One is the need to find out just how much oil and gas is in these waters. A reasonable suggestion would be to organize, under the ASEAN forum, a thorough survey of the South China Sea. American expertise would be invaluable.
Second, Obama could underline the need to strengthen a code of conduct pressed since 1992 by Indonesia and put teeth into an agreement to “resolve disputes by peaceful means and without resort to threats or use of force.”
To soften Chinese irritation, President Obama can admit to a significant U.S. shortcoming: failure to ratify the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. The treaty has been observed by the U.S. since its adoption, but it has not been ratified by the Senate.
Both countries have a compelling interest in not bypassing the Spratlys. For Washington, it would be wise to work out rules of the road in East Asia before China becomes a major naval power; it also would demonstrate U.S. support for smaller countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. For Beijing, a willingness to cooperate in the Spratlys could downplay an issue that now worries small Southeast Asian nations and pulls many closer to the United States.
Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a correspondent in Europe and Africa for The Baltimore Sun and later organized the State Department’s first war-gaming office.