Austin Bay

However, the China-Vietnam 1988 "local" confrontation over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea may be of more immediate relevance, not just for Vietnam and other nations along the South China Sea littoral, but also for Japan and South Korea, which also have maritime boundary and island disputes with China. In March 1988, Chinese and Vietnamese forces battled for control of several islets. China won the skirmishes, evicted the Vietnamese and still maintains control. The battles reprised a Chinese attack in 1974 on the then-South Vietnam-controlled Paracel Islands.

Location, location, location. The islands sit atop oil and gas fields. China claims approximately 80 percent of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Taiwan and even Cambodia claim slices of the seabed. China has established military installations on several disputed islands and reefs, including Mischief Reef, which Manila regards as Filipino territory.

So far, Chinese leaders believe local wrath is worth the reward in local energy resources. Beijing knows that reducing its energy reliance on the fickle Middle Eastern regimes is smart economically and politically. Moreover, potential military competitor India dominates the Indian Ocean shipping lanes plied by tankers bringing Arab, Iranian and African petroleum to China.

Divide and conquer is sharp strategy, but China's domination of the South China Sea may be reducing political divisions among its neighbors. Chinese diplomats have tried to prevent the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) from becoming a military alliance. They have tried to exploit disagreements between Japan and the U.S., and the Philippines and the U.S., to diminish American influence. Beijing smiled when the U.S. Navy left its Filipino bases.

ASEAN nations, however, see China as the imperialist bully. Vietnam is offering oil and gas development contracts to India. Filipinos have new respect for the U.S. Navy. Japan and the U.S. are actively pursuing missile defense programs. Those local wars China wants to win look increasingly complex, with China facing regional alliances fighting on multiple fronts.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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