Tuesday, February 05, 2008

CHINA RISES BLOG: Visit to disputed island creates a stir among Asian neighbors

By TIM JOHNSON
McClatchy Newspapers

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian made a surprise visit this past weekend to one of the disputed Spratly Islands in key shipping lanes in the South China Sea.

This was a stick-in-your-eye move by Chen, whose party is heading into elections next month. Chen likes to rile up his neighbors, and he picked the right place.

The Spratlys, you may remember, are disputed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. The barren reefs and rocky outcrops are astride the world's busiest shipping lanes. Surrounding seas may hold rich oil and gas deposits.

Vietnam on Sunday cried foul. It already had protested twice to Taiwan in the past month. The Philippines labeled the trip reckless.

So what of China? No official response. This might seem odd. China, after all, is hypersensitive to any efforts by Taiwan to exercise sovereignty. But the Chinese media are practically barren of news on this topic.

Here's what the smart money says: China looks kindly on the trip. After all, Chen's visit may help establish the "Chineseness" of the islands before the other claimants. One blog noted that some Chinese applauded Chen for "finally doing something right." Even if China and Taiwan have a joint claim, it helps fend off the Vietnamese, the thinking goes.

The real issue here is China and Vietnam. Taiwan may be peripheral.

Among the claimants to the 100 or islands, Taiwan may have the weakest right. It claims only the biggest island, Taiping, where Chen landed in a military C-130 Saturday for a few hours to inaugurate the runway and salute troops. Taiping Island is 1,000 miles south of Taiwan.

But China and Vietnam have actually drawn guns over the islands. And tensions between the two countries simmer anew.

In 1988, China and Vietnam fought a brief naval battle near the Spratlys' Johnson Reef, killing more than 70 Vietnamese sailors.

Large student-led anti-Chinese protests erupted in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in December following Chinese military exercises in the South China Sea. And now some shooting is occurring among fishing boats.

China wants no trouble before the Summer Olympic Games. But its troubles with Vietnam are worth keeping an eye on. Vietnam may see the Games as a chance to make some sort of further territorial claim on the islands. Taiwan, for that matter, may do the same.

Tim Johnson is the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers. E-mail him at tjohnson@mcclatchydc.com.

To read more of this writer's blog - as well as those of other McClatchy foreign correspondents - go to http://news.mcclatchy.com/