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.
Tensions surfaced between Philippines and China over disputed claims, as new imagery revealed alleged Chinese construction in Spratly Islands.
Philippines asserted South China Sea (SCS) claims amid ongoing tensions with China. Philippine President Marcos Jr. 1 Dec reiterated Manilla could still exploit SCS energy resources even without reaching deal with China, as ongoing talks on joint energy exploration stalled amid overlapping territorial claims and sovereignty concerns. Philippines 14 Dec expressed “great concern” over “unacceptable” continued Chinese presence near Iriqouis Reef and Sabina Shoal in disputed Spratly Islands. U.S. 19 Dec echoed concern over “escalating swarms” of unsafe Chinese Coast Guards vessels encountering Philippines navy; China next day slammed remarks as “unfounded accusation”. Manilla 22 Dec ordered military to strengthen presence in SCS, citing “Chinese activities” in disputed waters close to Pagada (Thitu) Island. Meanwhile, satellite images released 20 Dec showed newly developed formations appearing over previously unoccupied land formations over past year at Eldad Reef in northern Spratlys and neighbouring Lankiam Cay, Whitsun Reef and Sandy Cay; China next day dismissed allegations it was responsible as “completely untrue”. U.S. military 29 Dec said that Chinese fighter jet performed unsafe maneuver during intercept of U.S. Air Force jet.
The chair of ASEAN has the power to set the agenda. What [the chair] has been used for historically is to cut things out of the agenda, particularly the South China Sea.
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.
Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.