South China Sea 'a powder keg'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 November, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 November, 1995, 12:00am

THE growing regional insecurities unmasked by the latest United Nations' arms figures reveal the full depth of fear over the powder keg that is now the South China Sea.

If old ideological differences and land skirmishes are all but forgotten in a Southeast Asia of peace and prosperity, then the situation is reversed off its coast.

Nowhere in the region are fortified military bases so close to each other than in the Spratly Islands.

Countries as far apart as Taiwan and Vietnam come to within less than five nautical miles of each other, with China, Malaysia and the Philippines also backing claims with fortifications on reefs and shoals.

Diplomatic sources say all watch each other, with air and sea patrols stepped up over the last six months.

So when China's sweeping historical claim to virtually the whole sea is backed by shows of force such as its occupation of Mischief Reef on the edge of Philippines waters, alarm bells ring across the region.

Fear if China's ultimate aims has driven Vietnam into the arms of its former Association of Southeast Asian Nations foes quicker than expected.

But this is not just an issue for the association. The archipelago cuts through the heart of the busiest sea lanes in the South China Sea.

The arms report also shows, however, the determination of countries in the region to stand independently from the United States having rejected its recent overtures to station a ready-reaction type force there.