- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

MANILA China is building up its strength in the potentially oil-rich South China Sea to reinforce its claims there, even while talking with rival nations about peacefully resolving disputes in the region, a Philippine military report says.

The report comes several days after the U.S. Defense Department issued a sharply critical report saying the Chinese military is rapidly growing. Beijing angrily denied the U.S. claims yesterday, citing "evil motives."

The Philippine military report says the conflicting claims among the Philippines, China and other nations over the Spratly Islands and other islets and atolls in the strategic South China Sea were the "greatest potential flash point for conflict in Southeast Asia."

In the last four years, China has installed communications equipment on some occupied islands, organized a military unit for better surveillance and staged large-scale military exercises in the contested region, the report says.

"Beijing uses negotiating tactics to keep neighboring governments hopeful of a peaceful compromise while the Chinese military continues to build up its permanent 'fortresses' in the Spratly Islands," says the 20-page report prepared in March.

The Spratlys are a sprawling archipelago of barren islands, islets and reefs believed to be sitting atop a vast undersea deposit of oil and gas. China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim parts of the Spratlys.

The area straddles one of the world's busiest shipping routes and has many rich fishing grounds.

In recent years, China reportedly installed communications stations on three reefs in the Spratlys area that could transmit signals to Chinese navy patrol ships and contact a military ground command at China's South Sea Fleet headquarters in Zhangjiang, the report says.

In May 2000, China established a "South Sea Marine Surveillance Force" to safeguard its claims and identify marine and aquatic resources in the South China Sea, according to the report.

Last year, China reportedly built 20 to 24 navy vessels, fitted with 30 mm guns, that could be used for South China Sea patrols. The vessels would be disguised as customs watercraft to downplay China's expanding patrols, the report claims.

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