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.
Amid mounting tensions, China and Philippines struck deal to improve maritime communication, while Manila sought to deepen military ties with Western partners.
Beijing and Manila brokered communication agreement. China’s military 3 Jan launched two-day routine patrol in SCS, concurrently as USS Carl Vinson began drills with Philippine navy; Philippines military 4 Jan reported two Chinese navy vessels shadowed Philippine and U.S. ships. Philippine Coast Guard revealed video purportedly showing China’s Coast Guard harassing Philippine fishermen near Scarborough Shoal on 12 Jan; 27 Chinese maritime militia ships were spotted near Scarborough Shoal on 21 Jan. In rare move by regional leader, Philippines’ President Marcos Jr. 15 Jan congratulated winner of Taiwan’s presidential election and expressed hope for cooperation (see Taiwan Strait); China next day summoned Philippine ambassador, warned Manila “not to play with fire”. Philippine military chief 15 Jan announced intention to develop islands and reefs in SCS to make them habitable for troops, including enhanced provisions for troops stationed at grounded warship on Second Thomas Shoal. Philippine Defence Secretary Teodoro Jr. 17 Jan announced country was planning “more robust” military activities with U.S. and its allies in face of “more aggressive” China. In positive step, Manila and Beijing 19 Jan brokered agreement to enhance maritime communication in SCS, aiming to defuse tensions and manage differences around contested areas.
Philippines deepened defence ties with Western partners. Philippines 11 Jan signed defence agreement with UK that could expedite Manila’s military modernisation through access to UK’s advanced weapons systems. German FM Annalena Baerbock 13 Jan met Marcos Jr. and FM Enrique Manalo and pledged €129mn assistance to coast guard, including additional drones for SCS operations; Baerbock expressed concern over China’s SCS activities. Philippines and Canada 19 Jan signed memorandum of understanding to enhance defence cooperation.
Disputes between China and Vietnam came into focus. U.S.-based research organisation early Jan reported presence of Chinese coast guard ship 5901 near Vietnam’s oil exploration blocks at Vanguard Bank in SCS since early Dec. Vietnam 20 Jan asserted its claim over Paracel and Spratly Islands, prompting China 24 Jan to reiterate its own claims. Philippines and Vietnam 30 Jan agreed coast guard cooperation pact in SCS.
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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