Over 50 years ago, I was living in SE Asia. When on leave from my teaching job in Thailand, I used to travel around the neighbouring countries. In 1970, I bought an inexpensive airline ticket with five destinations, one of which was Manila in the Philippines.  I was strongly advised to avoid going to Manila, because I was told it was dangerous at the time for single foreign women travelling on their own.  Although I had already visited both Laos and Vietnam alone during the conflict those countries, I decided not to go.  I went to Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore instead. The following year in 1971 I had an adventure in Indonesia and also in Burma, though I failed to get to Cambodia because of the conflict there. I have always rather regretted missing the Philippines.

But today I am aboard a small cruise ship in the South China Sea, heading towards the Philippines. I am journeying with my husband, and tomorrow we make landfall and will go ashore.  I am very excited as I regard this visit as unfinished business, and also because I believe it is (and has always been) a fascinating country of much beauty and culture.  It so happens that, as we steam along,  just over a hundred miles to the north are the Spratly Islands, a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea. They were named after a 19th-century British whaling captain, Richard Spratly, who sighted them in 1843. They comprise more than 100 small islands, islets or reefs surrounded by rich fishing grounds – and potentially by gas and oil deposits. They are claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, while portions are claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines. There have recently been some acrimonious confrontations.  So here I am – after half a century – again near a potential area of conflict, blithely sailing past. Nothing changes – greed for power, resources and land (even as small as these tiny islands) never seems to diminish.