South China Sea

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.

CrisisWatch South China Sea

Deteriorated Situation

Maritime encounters and stern warnings heightened tensions between Philippines and China in South China Sea (SCS); Manila proactively engaged U.S. and regional countries.

Manila and Beijing engaged in war of words amid maritime incidents in SCS. Philippines 5 March accused China of “dangerous manoeuvres and blocking” that led to collision between one of its ships and Chinese Coast Guard vessel during Philippine resupply mission to BRP Sierra Madre on disputed Second Thomas Shoal, injuring four Philippine sailors. U.S. same day denounced China’s “provocative” and “dangerous” moves and reiterated that its Mutual Defence Treaty with Philippines extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, including Coast Guard, anywhere in SCS. Philippine Senate 7 March passed bill to align country’s maritime zones with 2016 award of Permanent Court of Arbitration tribunal that invalidated Beijing’s vast territorial claims in SCS; China protested that act violates its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights. Philippines 11 March reported spotting about 50 Chinese vessels within its Exclusive Economic Zone in SCS, many surrounding disputed Scarborough Shoal. In another maritime incident, China Coast Guard vessel 23 March used water cannon on civilian boat supplying Philippine troops on Second Thomas Shoal, damaging vessel and injuring crew; Manila 25 March summoned China’s envoy to protest “aggressive actions”. China’s defence ministry 24 March warned Philippines to “stop making any remarks” that could lead to escalation or risk China’s “resolute and decisive measures”. President Marcos 28 March announced plans for counter-measures against China Coast Guard’s “illegal, coercive, aggressive, and dangerous” actions.

Manila courted ties with Washington and regional states. Philippine FM Enrique Manalo 4 March called on regional neighbours to uphold rule of law in SCS, referring to Manila’s victory in Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling. Marcos 19 March met U.S. Sec of State Antony Blinken to discuss cooperation and security matters amid heightened tensions with China; Blinken called U.S. security commitment to Philippines “ironclad”. China’s foreign ministry responded that U.S. “has no right to intervene” in SCS issues. India’s FM S. Jaishankar 26 March called for defence cooperation with Philippines. South Korea 26 March expressed “grave concern” over China’s use of water cannons in SCS.

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