KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia — The 150-foot boat Coral Topaz offers what must rank as a unique cruise. It's not the excellent fishing or diving that sets the five-day voyage apart but the destination--a place that many experts worry may be Asia's next flash point.
Since early May, the Malaysian government has opened to tourists a small atoll called Layang Layang, about 165 miles off the coast of Borneo that for several months a year is partially submerged under the brilliant waters of the South China Sea.
Layang Layang is part of a chain of islands called the Spratlys, named after a long-forgotten whaling captain. Sitting athwart the region's strategic shipping lanes, the Spratlys have the dubious distinction of being claimed not only by Malaysia but also by Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Brunei. Even the name is in contention: China calls them the Nansha Islands, and the Philippines has dubbed them the Kalaayans.
Barely 40 miles away from Layang Layang is the Vietnamese-held island of Amboyna Cay, where Hanoi's claims are backed up by bristling coastal artillery. "We don't go there, it's asking for trouble," noted Charles Miao, skipper of the Coral Topaz. "They shoot you, man."
China and Vietnam have already clashed over the Spratlys in a March, 1988, naval battle that sank two Vietnamese patrol ships and left scores dead. China occupied seven of the islands, and Vietnam held 21.
Malaysia has held Layang Layang since 1983, and Taiwan has controlled the island of Taiping since the 1950s. All of the claimants but Brunei now maintain military garrisons on the islands.
Maj. Gen. Lisandro Abadia, the chief of staff of the Philippine armed forces, told a security conference in Manila last month that "there are strong indications that the future arena of conflict may shift toward the maritime area, specifically the territorial dispute over the Spratlys."
While the islands are little more than sandbars and reefs, the reason for the conflicting claims lies beneath the surface. The area off southern Vietnam contains exploitable quantities of oil and gas, and many experts expect the same for the Spratlys. The countries surrounding the South China Sea are maneuvering for a share in the expected wealth.
"Because the South China Sea is rich in natural resources such as oil, gas and fish, and more importantly, strategically placed as a vital sea line of communications, an armed conflict may easily and quickly be exploited by interested parties and, worse, invite external intervention," Malaysia's Defense Forces chief, Gen. Hashim Mohammed Ali, warned last month.
In an effort to work out a system for jointly exploiting the islands, the Indonesian government is sponsoring a conference in Bandung this week involving academics and government experts from all the claimants. It is the first time that China and Taiwan have agreed to join talks on the future of the Spratlys.
The Indonesian conference is being conducted informally, meaning that the participants will not be able to negotiate a final solution to the dispute. Still, even an informal agreement on joint exploitation would help defuse the current mood of aggressiveness.
Malaysia recently announced that it was buying two missile corvettes for its navy from Britain, part of an effort to beef up its offshore defenses in areas like the Spratlys.
"To the extent this is a military buildup, it's designed to defend their own economic and territorial interests," said a Western diplomat in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. "There has to be concern that there will be a clash."
While China has expressed willingness to talk about joint economic exploitation of the natural resources of the islands, it insists that Chinese sovereignty over them is "indisputable."
In a hard-line statement issued last December, Beijing warned that "Vietnam must withdraw from the islands and reefs of China's Nansha Islands, which it has illegally occupied."
But Vietnam announced recently that it had erected a satellite receiving station for the benefit of its soldiers on the islands, which was taken as a sign of Hanoi's determination to stay put.
Malaysian officials speak worriedly about China's "blue water navy" and its potential for interfering with shipping in the busy region. The Malaysian navy has developed a small navy base with artillery on Layang Layang and blasted a channel to provide a harbor for two gunboats.
But it took the region by surprise when the Kuala Lumpur government announced that the island was being opened to commercial exploitation.
Malaysian Tourism Minister Sabbaruddin Chik said the government has spent an "incredible sum of money" developing the island, but so far there is only a tiny, 19-bed guest house that is open only to government officials.
Visitors who travel to Layang Layang aboard the Coral Topaz sleep and eat on the ship. Once there, the only diversion besides diving and fishing is watching the thousands of birds that nest in the sand.