China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea has raised tensions over competing territorial claims and maritime rights. In July 2016, an International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea found in favour of the Philippines on fourteen of fifteen points in its dispute with China, ruling that Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claim is inconsistent with international law. China rejected the decision, but subsequently its relations with the Philippines have warmed. Tensions between littoral states and China remain, however, as do disagreements between Beijing and Washington over freedom of navigation and trade. The risk of clashes is real. Crisis Group seeks to reduce friction and promote shared stewardship of the sea and its natural resources.
The disputes in the South China Sea are fundamentally about claims of sovereignty, the broadest of which are staked by Beijing. The Chinese-U.S. rivalry, meanwhile, loads the dissension with geopolitical significance. Both major powers stand to gain by accepting the constraints of international law.
Philippines strengthened ties with U.S. and Japan amid tensions among claimant states at various flashpoints in South China Sea (SCS).
Philippines affirmed close cooperation with U.S. and Japan. Marking first visit by Philippine leader to U.S. in ten years, President Marcos, Jr. 1 May met U.S. President Biden in Washington; Biden affirmed “ironclad” commitment to defence of Philippines, including in disputed SCS, while Marcos, Jr. said it was “only natural” for Manila to be close to its sole treaty ally amid “most complicated geopolitical situation in the world”. Philippine military chief Andres Centino 18 May visited Balabac airbase, Palawan, to assure troops of provision of more resources and manpower; site is one of four granted to U.S. under bilateral Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement announced in April. Philippine FM Enrique Manalo and Japanese counterpart Hayashi Yoshimasa 16 May agreed to work together closely on SCS issues as well as against “economic coercion”. U.S. 30 May condemned China for “unnecessarily aggressive manoeuvre” against one of its aircraft operating in SCS.
Tensions surfaced among Philippines, Vietnam and China over competing claims. Philippines 14 May placed five navigational buoys bearing national flag within its Exclusive Economic Zone to assert sovereignty over disputed Spratly Islands; Vietnam, which also claims features, 18 May criticised move. China 24 May placed three buoys in Irving Reef, Whitsun Reef and Gaven Reef in Spratlys Islands. Vietnamese and Chinese vessels 14 May confronted each other at disputed Vanguard Bank area of SCS – claimed by China under its “nine-dash-line” – following Vietnamese notice of expanded oil-drilling operations in area. Meanwhile, on diplomatic front, Chinese and regional bloc ASEAN negotiating parties 17 May struck agreement to complete SCS Code of Conduct second reading this year. G7 leaders 20 May expressed “serious concerns” over situation in SCS, criticising “China’s expansive maritime claims” and its “militarisation activities in the region”.
Together with the Philippines, Vietnam is on the front line of maritime disputes with China. The risk of armed confrontation is low but growing. Hanoi should redouble efforts to build confidence, starting with less sensitive issues, and to establish an effective Code of Conduct.
The maritime dispute between China and the Philippines is simmering against the backdrop of strategic competition between Beijing and Washington. To keep tensions below boiling point, Manila should push for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as well as greater regional cooperation.
The South China Sea has long been a critical maritime passage, means of supply and trade route that was fought over by many claimants. Today the South China Sea is once again a 21st century flashpoint.
The long-simmering South China Sea dispute is doomed to escalate if the countries contesting its waters fail to take steps to reduce tensions.
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