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Tensions continued to mount between Philippines and China amid maritime incidents near flashpoints in South China Sea (SCS).
China sought to impede Philippines’ access to disputed shoal. Philippine frigate 1 Nov entered waters near Scarborough Shoal, prompting China’s navy to quickly dispatch warships and fighter jets to track and ward off vessel. As Philippines continued resupply mission to its grounded ship on Second Thomas Shoal – significant source of tension in recent months – Chinese and Philippine vessels 10 Nov engaged in another standoff near shoal as Chinese coast guard ships fired water cannon at Philippine boat; Manila accused China of “dangerously harassing” its ships. Manila 11 Nov announced China had deployed record 38 vessels near shoal, with eleven actively involved in intercepting Philippine boats. Philippine President Marcos Jr. 18 Nov met Chinese President Xi on sidelines of APEC summit in U.S., where former expressed concern over recent incidents. Marcos next day said SCS situation had become “more dire”, warning Beijing had “started to show interest” in building bases on reefs that were “closer and closer to the Philippine coastline”.
U.S. maintained support for Manila. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin 15 Nov met Philippine counterpart Gilberto Teodoro Jr; pair criticised China’s recent harassment of Philippine vessels and confirmed commitment to Mutual Defense Treaty. Meanwhile, U.S. navy 3 Nov conducted freedom of navigation operation near Spratly Islands, marking first such operation in six months, and 25 Nov near Paracel Islands, which China protested. Manila 21 Nov held joint air and maritime patrols with U.S. in its northernmost province near Taiwan Strait, and held patrols for first time with Australia 25-27 Nov, during which two Chinese fighter jets orbited Philippine patrol aircraft.
Manila sought closer defence ties with regional countries. Following talks in Philippine capital Manila between Marcos Jr. and Japanese PM Fumio Kishida, pair 4 Nov announced they will begin negotiations on deal to deploy troops on each other’s territory. Japan reached agreements with Malaysia and Vietnam to deepen security cooperation. Marcos Jr. 20 Nov said Philippines is approaching Malaysia and Vietnam to discuss separate SCS code of conduct, citing lack of progress in ASEAN-China negotiations.
Maritime collision between Philippine and Chinese vessels in South China Sea (SCS) further fuelled tensions, as U.S. spotlighted China’s “risky” military encounters.
Philippines slammed China for dangerous maritime collision near disputed shoal. Philippines 4 Oct announced it had successfully shipped fresh supplies to personnel stationed at BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal, despite “significant number” of Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels seeking to “block, harass and interfere” with resupply mission. China’s coast guard 10 Oct claimed it drove away Philippine navy ship near contested Scarborough Shoal; Manila acknowledged its ship was conducting maritime patrol and engaged in brief encounter but rejected assertion it was chased away. Philippines 16 Oct slammed China for “dangerous and offensive manoeuvres” after Chinese vessel shadowed Philippine ship southwest of Thitu Island – Manila’s largest outpost in SCS – and came within 320m of ship. In sign of further heightening of tensions, Philippines 22 Oct accused China’s coast guard of “dangerous blocking manoeuvres” that caused it to collide with Philippine resupply boat about 25km from Second Thomas Shoal, while another Chinese maritime militia vessel “bumped” Philippine Coast Guard vessel; U.S. condemned Beijing’s actions and reiterated its defence treaty obligations extend to “armed attacks” on Philippine Coast Guard “anywhere in the South China Sea”. President Biden 25 Oct said U.S. defence commitment to Philippines is “ironclad”; China responded that U.S. has “no right to get involved”.
U.S. highlighted trend of increasing Chinese coercive action in air. U.S. Defense Department 17 Oct released collection of declassified images and videos depicting fifteen recent cases of “coercive and risky operational behavior” by China’s military against U.S. aircraft in East and South China Sea regions; U.S. claimed that it has recorded more than 180 such incidents since Autumn 2021. China reciprocated by releasing footage accusing U.S. of “closed-in harassment”. U.S. 24 Oct claimed Chinese fighter jet executed an unsafe intercept of U.S. aircraft.
Standoff continued between China and Philippines over disputed Scarborough Shoal, while regional countries conducted naval drills across South China Sea (SCS).
Dispute continued between Beijing and Manila over shoal. After escalation in tensions in Aug, China and Philippines 8 Sept were embroiled in another standoff over Second Thomas Shoal as Chinese Coast Guard attempted to block entry of Philippine vessels on resupply mission to grounded BRB Sierra Madre; Philippine Defence Secretary Gilbert Teodoro 13 Sept said resupply missions would continue despite “harassment” and called for forging new alliances. Philippines 26 Sept removed 300-metre “floating barrier” erected by Beijing in part of Scarborough Shoal that blocked its fishermen’s activities, calling it “clear violation of international law” and asserting “Filipino people will not back down”. Philippine President Marcos Jr. 29 Sept said “We are staying away from fiery words, but our resolve to defend Philippine territory is strong”.
Military activity in region remained high. Philippines and U.S. 4 Sept conducted joint sail in waters west of Palawan Island; Philippines and Canada 25 Sept conducted joint sail in same area. China’s aircraft carrier Shandong 15 Sept returned to SCS, along with five navy surface ships. Regional bloc ASEAN 19 Sept held its first joint military drill involving ten member states plus Timor-Leste near Indonesia’s Batam Island. Chinese state media 20 Sept reported China had built two ground stations for its BeiDou satellite system on two disputed reefs in Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. China 28 Sept issued navigation warning for planned exercises in SCS.
U.S. and Vietnam boosted ties. During President Biden’s historic visit to Vietnam, pair 10 Sept called for peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law without threat or use of force; Vietnam and U.S. upgraded their diplomatic ties to Comprehensive Strategic partnership, a special category that Vietnam hitherto reserved for Laos and Cambodia. During visit to China, Malaysia’s PM Anwar Ibrahim 17 Sept said Malaysia and China agreed to have continuous and open communication over SCS to ensure situation remains peaceful.
Maritime incident between China and Philippines near disputed shoal in Spratly Islands elevated tensions.
China blocked Philippine resupply mission to disputed shoal. Chinese Coast Guard 5 Aug fired water cannon to drive away Philippine vessels seeking to resupply BRP Sierre Madre, World War II vessel grounded at Second Thomas Shoal in north-eastern Spratly Islands, causing one of supply boats to turn away; Philippine coast guard condemned China’s “dangerous manoeuvres”, while U.S. same day reaffirmed that attacks on Philippine coast guard ships will trigger commitments under 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Manila 19 Aug vowed to resume supply missions to BRP Sierre Madre, raising prospect of further interceptions by China; Philippine vessels 22 Aug reached Second Thomas Shoal. Amid spat, Philippines 9 Aug announced it will conduct joint patrol with the U.S. this year in SCS and next day revealed plans to deploy maritime militia and establish reserves unit in SCS; Philippines 20 Aug announced U.S., Japan and Australia will organise joint navy drill off its waters. After China’s annual summer fishing moratorium ended 16 Aug, Philippines said it was ready to “take law enforcement measures” as Chinese fishing activities are expected to increase in SCS.
China and U.S. traded criticism as Manila mulled maritime deal with Vietnam. Chinese FM Wang Yi 11 Aug blasted U.S. for being “the biggest source of instability” in world and for “fanning flames” at Second Thomas Shoal. At historic Camp David summit, U.S., Japan and South Korea 18 Aug criticised China’s “dangerous and aggressive behaviour supporting unlawful maritime claims” in SCS. Philippine President Marcos Jr. 10 Aug revealed govt is considering maritime agreement with Vietnam to “bring stability” to SCS. Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia late Aug protested new Chinese govt map laying claim to vast areas of SCS.
Covert construction continued on disputed islands. Planet Labs satellite imagery 17 Aug revealed China appears to be building airstrip on Triton, an island in Paracel group also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Philippine media 19 Aug reported that Vietnam is planning to fortify its presence on Spratlys.
Philippines protested China’s “dangerous” maritime harassment in South China Sea (SCS) as U.S. and EU showed support for Manila, while Beijing and ASEAN discussed code of conduct.
Tensions persisted between China and Philippines. Philippine Coast Guard 6 July accused Chinese coast guard of “dangerous manoeuvres”, as Philippine ships were “constantly followed, harassed and obstructed by the significantly larger Chinese coast guard vessels” near Second Thomas Shoal. In response to Chinese activities, Philippine Coast Guard 7 July said it will intensify patrols in Iroquois Reef, while military 13 July said it will deploy more assets to Kalayaan island group, eastern part of Spratly archipelago. China announced large no-sail zone for military exercises 29 July-2 August, spanning area including Paracel Islands and Macclesfield Bank. U.S. Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group 4 July transited SCS after conducting port visit to Vietnam 25 June.
Manila received diplomatic support for position in SCS dispute. Philippines 12 July marked seventh anniversary of its legal victory over China on South China Sea Arbitration at the Hague Tribunal, as FM Enrique Manalo said Tribunal’s decision affirmed correctness of Philippines taking “the path of principle, the rule of law and the peaceful settlement of disputes”; U.S. and EU reaffirmed their support and stressed that ruling is legally binding. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen 31 July declared readiness “to strengthen the cooperation with the Philippines on maritime security in the region”, following meeting with President Marcos, Jr. in Manila.
Beijing and regional bloc inched toward code of conduct. China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) 13 July completed second reading of code of conduct for SCS at ASEAN Regional Forum. Joint working group had missed 2022 deadline to reach agreement but agreed to attempt to conclude accord within three years.
Claimant states and interested parties conducted range of military exercises.
Military activity in region occurred at high intensity. Indonesia 5-7 June held multilateral naval exercises off South Sulawesi involving 36 nations, including both U.S. and China. Vietnam 8 June demanded Taiwan cancel live-fire drills near Taiwan-occupied Itu Aba Island, citing direct violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty over Spratly archipelago. U.S., Japan, France and Canada 9 June concluded integrated sea exercises near Philippine Sea; in response, China reportedly deployed reconnaissance aircraft to monitor activities. Chinese naval ship Qi Jiguang 14 June arrived in Philippine capital Manila for four-day good-will visit. Japan, U.S. and Philippines 16 June announced plans to stage regular joint exercises in South and East China Seas, aiming to produce formal strategy document by end of year; Japan also reaffirmed support to enhance Philippines’ military capabilities through official security assistance announced in April. U.S. aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan 25-30 June docked at Vietnam’s port city of Danang, in third such visit by U.S. carrier since 1975.
In other important developments. Malaysia and Philippines 13 June signed agreements to end 18-year maritime border disputes in parts of Straits of Malacca and Sulawesi Sea. Philippine and Indian FMs 29 June urged China to abide by international law in South China Sea, most notably including 2016 ruling at Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which found that China’s declared “nine-dash line” has no legal basis.
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”.
U.S. and Philippines expanded defence cooperation and conducted largest-ever joint military drills, while tensions continued between Manila and Beijing.
U.S. and Philippines deepened defence ties amid large-scale exercises. Philippines 3 April announced location of four additional sites accessible to U.S. forces under Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement; three sites are situated in north, facing Taiwan. Announcement prompted local concern, as Cagayan provincial governor said U.S. presence could make areas a “magnet for an attack in case a war erupts”. U.S. and Philippines 11-28 April held 38th annual Balikatan exercises in largest-ever iteration and 11 April agreed to complete roadmap on delivery of U.S. defence assistance over next 5-10 years, and to finalise plans for combined maritime activities, including joint sails in SCS; pair also expressed concern over China’s land reclamation activities in Spratly Islands. USS Milius 10 April entered within 12 nautical miles of China-controlled Mischief Reef in Spratly Islands; U.S. Nimitz Carrier Strike Group 17 April operated in SCS en route to Thailand. Earlier, Japan 5 April revealed new guidelines to strengthen militaries of “like-minded countries”, with Philippines set to be among first beneficiaries, amid reports of possible U.S.-Japan-Philippines security framework.
Tensions persisted between Manila and Beijing amid regional diplomacy. China’s ambassador to Philippines 14 April said Philippines should oppose “Taiwan independence” rather than expanding U.S. access; Marcos 22 April met Chinese FM Qin Gang and pledged to “establish more lines of communication”. Philippine Coast Guard late month claimed more than 100 Chinese vessels were spotted nearby 18-24 April, and 28 April reported near collision between its patrol vessels and Chinese navy ship. Following his first official trip to China, Malaysian PM Anwar Ibrahim 3 April said Beijing expressed concern over Malaysian energy activities in SCS and next day stated Malaysia is prepared to negotiate with Beijing over dispute, prompting domestic political backlash. Malaysian foreign ministry 8 April clarified govt’s commitment to its own “sovereign rights and interests” in SCS. U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken 15 April met Vietnamese leader Nguyen Phu Trong in Vietnamese capital Hanoi in visit aimed at bolstering ties.
Maritime tensions persisted as China asserted presence in disputed waters, U.S. and Philippines held joint drills and negotiations resumed between Beijing and regional bloc ASEAN.
Chinese vessels maintained presence in disputed waters. Over 40 alleged Chinese maritime militia, naval and coast guard vessels 4-7 March lingered in vicinity of Philippine-administered Thitu/Pag-asa Island, with vessels lingering in area thereafter. Media reports early March said Philippines had intensified patrols in area and increased efforts to document and publicise assertive Chinese behaviour; Manilla late Feb said it was discussing joint coast guard patrols with U.S. in South China Sea (SCS). Beijing and Philippines 23 March held in-person consultations in Manilla to discuss range of issues. Meanwhile, Chinese research vessel Haiyang Dizhi 4 15 March lingered in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for over 17 hours; local think-tank South China Sea Chronicle Initiative claimed Chinese vessels had been operating within Vietnam’s EEZ. U.S. navy vessel USS Milius 23 March sailed near Paracel Islands; China claimed it warned away warship but U.S. denied that account.
Philippines and U.S. conducted exercises, AUKUS unveiled plans. Manilla and Washington 13 March began three-week “Salaknib” joint exercises involving over 3,000 Philippine and U.S. soldiers, ahead of largest ever “Balikatan” joint drills set for 11-28 April involving 17,600 participants. Meanwhile, Australia, UK and U.S. – as part of trilateral security pact AUKUS – 13 March announced pathway for Australia to acquire up to eight nuclear-powered submarines in coming decades.
ASEAN-China negotiations resumed. Member states of regional bloc ASEAN and China 8-10 March met to negotiate SCS Code of Conduct, setting aim to conduct security hotline exercise this year to prevent accidental collisions. Japan 13 March launched hotline with ASEAN member states to communicate on security issues.
Philippines deepened military cooperation with U.S. and Japan amid elevated tensions with China over South China Sea (SCS).
Philippines expanded partnership with U.S. and Japan. U.S. and Philippines 2 Feb signed deal permitting U.S. forces access to four military bases in Philippines, adding to five existing bases and bolstering U.S. presence on south-eastern rim of SCS; pair also agreed to restart joint maritime patrols in SCS. U.S. Nimitz Carrier Strike Group and marines 11 Feb conducted drills in SCS; Manila 15 Feb announced annual Balikatan joint exercises with U.S. will be conducted in spring on greater scale than last year. Philippine President Marcos 8-12 Feb signed seven agreements with Japanese PM Kishida, including $13bn package covering several areas related to defence; deal marks step toward completing Reciprocal Access Agreement facilitating greater military cooperation. Marcos 12 Feb also expressed interest in adopting Visiting Forces Agreement with Japan as well as revisiting potential trilateral security pact with Washington. Philippines 22 Feb discussed conducting joint patrols with Australia.
Maritime tensions persisted between Philippines and China. Two Chinese Coast Guard and two maritime militia vessels 1 Feb tailed Philippine warship near Mischief Reef. Philippine Coast Guard 6 Feb accused Chinese Coast Guard vessel of shining “military-grade laser light” at one of its boats around 20km from Second Thomas Shoal (Ayugin Shoal) in Spratly Islands under control of Philippine forces; Beijing said incident was “intrusion without permission” by Philippine Coast Guard. Marcos 14 Feb summoned Chinese ambassador to express “serious concern” over “increasing frequency and intensity of actions”. Philippine FM Enrique Manalo 20 Feb said Chinese harassment of Philippine vessels in SCS is “daily situation”. Chinese Coast Guard vessel 21 Feb issued radio challenges to Philippine Coast Guard aircraft flying over Sabina and Second Thomas Shoals inside Manila’s exclusive economic zone; around 30 Chinese vessels continued to linger in area late month.
Regional bloc ASEAN pledged to wrap up Code of Conduct negotiations. ASEAN foreign ministers during 3-4 Feb meeting vowed to complete SCS Code of Conduct negotiations with China; ASEAN chair Indonesia said it is ready to host first round of negotiations by March.
Philippines and China signed economic deals despite differences over South China Sea (SCS), while U.S. and Beijing continued maritime activity in region.
Philippines and China struck agreements amid SCS tensions. Philippine President Marcos Jr. 3-5 Jan visited Chinese capital Beijing and met President Xi, signing agreements on issues including fisheries, infrastructure and finance; meeting followed late Dec announcement of new SCS hotline between two states. Philippine Supreme Court 11 Jan declared 2005 joint oil exploration pact between China, Philippines and Vietnam unconstitutional; Philippine foreign ministry said it would take ruling into account when resuming talks with China over possible cooperation on oil and gas in disputed waters. Former National Security Adviser Clarita Carlos 13 Jan said Philippines was examining Chinese partnership proposal with fishing villages in West Philippine Sea; Marcos 15 Jan clarified Philippines and China only have agreement, not partnership, allowing Filipino fishermen to fish in SCS.
U.S. and Chinese ships continued maritime activity in region. China late Dec sent its largest coastguard vessels to patrol Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, which remained present during month; vessels arrived as Indonesia and Vietnam finalised their 12-year negotiation to delimit overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones late Dec, which may challenge China’s “nine-dash-line” claims. Indonesia mid-month deployed warship to North Natuna Sea to monitor Chinese Coast Guard vessel. U.S. Nimitz Carrier Strike Group and accompanying warships 12 Jan entered SCS and conducted routine operations; in response, Chinese Shandong aircraft carrier group held series of “confrontational drills” in SCS. Media reports mid-month suggested Beijing turned down U.S. offer to hold military talks on SCS ahead of U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken’s visit to China in Feb. Meanwhile, Japanese Coast Guard 13 Jan concluded four-day security drills training with Malaysian counterpart on repelling foreign intruders in SCS.
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.
U.S. VP Kamala Harris visited Philippines, deepening military ties between allies, while negotiations on South China Sea (SCS) Code of Conduct made no progress.
U.S. VP reiterated commitment to Philippines, visiting island on rim of SCS. U.S. VP Kamala Harris 20 Nov commenced visit to Philippines, meeting Philippine President Marcos Jr. to discuss expanding U.S.-Philippine security ties, including Coast Guard partnership and maritime law enforcement cooperation, as Harris reaffirmed U.S. commitment toward Philippines under 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty in case of “armed attack on the Philippines armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific”. Harris 22 Nov became highest-ranking U.S. official ever to visit Palawan – western Philippine island near disputed Spratly Islands in SCS. U.S. Navy ship USS Chancellorsville 29 Nov conducted freedom of navigation operation near Spratly Islands; China’s eastern theatre command same day rebuked operation as “trespassing” into Chinese waters. Earlier, Philippine military 21 Nov said Chinese Coast Guard forcibly seized suspected Chinese rocket debris being towed by Philippine Navy off Philippine-occupied Thitu Island.
SCS Code of Conduct negotiations remained stalled. President Marcos, Jr. 13 Nov reiterated urgency of concluding negotiations on Code of Conduct as conclusion of regional body ASEAN’s East Asia Summit brought no progress on finalising draft. ASEAN and China same day released joint statement pledging to make SCS “sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation” and conclude early adoption of Code of Conduct. Chinese President Xi 18 Nov reiterated pledge during meeting with Brunei’s leader Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. U.S. President Biden same day affirmed freedom of navigation and overflight must be respected in East and South China Seas.
U.S. and allies held naval drills in South China Sea (SCS), while Chinese hospital ship sailed to more than dozen Chinese-occupied islands.
U.S. conducted joint exercises with allies and announced new initiative. U.S., Japan, and Canada maritime forces 1 Oct concluded “Noble Raven 22” joint exercises in SCS. U.S., Japan, and Australia 7 Oct held manoeuvres, while all four countries 19 Oct participated in joint exercises for first time, including surface, subsurface, and air defence exercises. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas 18 Oct announced $60mn investment in new maritime initiatives in Indo-Pacific, with aim to increase presence involving Coast Guard assets and personnel capable of rapid deployment on request of partner.
Chinese naval vessel visited SCS islands. Chinese state media 11 Oct reported naval hospital ship Youhao had completed 18-day voyage, including visit to 13 Chinese-occupied islands in Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, providing “medical services to more than 5,000 people” located on islands. Chinese oil company 20 Oct claimed to find first “deep-deep” gas field in western SCS, with gas reserve exceeding 50bn cubic metres.
In another important development. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Sec Gen Dato Paduka 19 Oct said regional body and China were currently working on second draft of SCS Code of Conduct.
Tensions remained high as Philippines revealed it had filed numerous protests against China’s maritime incursions and Beijing expressed readiness to agree Code of Conduct.Philippines revealed it had repeatedly protested Chinese maritime incursions in 2022. Manilla 8 Sept said it had filed 178 protests against Chinese incursion into territorial waters as of 31 Aug, including 48 since President Marcos Jr. took office on 30 June; incursions included illegal fishing, harassment of fisherman and unauthorised marine research.Amid ongoing activity, China pledged support for finalising maritime Code of Conduct. Chinese FM Wang 20 Sept spoke to Vietnamese PM Pham Minh Chinh, affirmed China was ready to work with countries from South East Asia regional body ASEAN to reach early agreement on Code of Conduct in South China Sea (SCS). Philippine Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairwoman Senator Imee Marcos 14 Sepy suggested Code of Conduct should only be negotiated among claimant countries, instead of all ASEAN states, to speed up process. Australian Navy chief Mark Hammond 9 Sept said Australian warships were regularly shadowed by Chinese military vessels in SCS, describing behaviour as “unusual”.U.S.-Philippines negotiations on security arrangements continued. Philippine Ambassador to U.S. Jose Manuel Romualdez 5 Sept said in event of Taiwan conflict, Manila would only let U.S. forces use its military bases if conflict affected Philippines’ security; also said Manila and Washington were negotiating increase of bases available to U.S. forces under bilateral Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Philippine President Ferdinand Marco Jr. 22 Sept met U.S. President Biden at UN General Assembly, where pair pledged support for freedom of navigation and overflight.
China conducted minesweeping and training exercises, while regional body ASEAN announced intention to proceed with Code of Conduct negotiating text. Chinese navy 13 Aug commenced five-day minesweeping drill in South China Sea (SCS) with brigade including Type 082-II minesweepers Hejian and Chishui. China’s Shandong aircraft carrier battlegroup 24 Aug commenced training exercises. ASEAN FMs 5 Aug called for “maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety, and freedom of navigation” in SCS during foreign ministers’ meeting, and announced aim to conclude second reading of Single Draft Negotiating Text for Code of Conduct by end of 2022. Taiwanese FM Joseph Wu 9 Aug warned China’s ambitions go beyond Taiwan, said it is “determined to link the East and South China Seas to the Taiwan Strait so this entire area would become its internal waters”. Australian Air Force chief Robert Chipman 22 Aug said Australia would continue surveillance operations in SCS despite “recent spate of unsafe incidences”, alluding to May confrontation between Australian and Chinese jets.
China purportedly sought management of South China Sea (SCS) dispute with Philippines, while U.S. warned of risk of major incident with China and conducted naval operations near disputed islands. Chinese VP Wang Qishan 1 July said China and Philippines should “adhere to the proper handling” of SCS dispute while attending inauguration of President Marcos Jr; Chinese FM Wang Yi 7 July said “differences cannot be allowed to define the relationship between the two countries.” On occasion of sixth anniversary of SCS Arbitral Tribunal Ruling, U.S. 11 July reaffirmed its 2020 policy rejecting China’s maritime rights claims in SCS and that any attack on Filipino armed forces, vessels or aircraft would invoke U.S. commitments under Mutual Defence Treaty; Philippines FM next day said arbitral tribunal ruling was “final” (China previously judged it illegal, null and void). U.S. Navy 13 July conducted freedom of navigation operations near disputed Paracel Islands; China same day said it had “driven away” ship and called U.S. “destroyer” of regional peace and stability. U.S. 16 July conducted additional operation near disputed Spratly Islands; USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group same day entered SCS. U.S. media reports citing informed sources 14 July said Chinese fighter jet had “unsafe” and “unprofessional” interaction with U.S. special operations C-130 aircraft in June. U.S. 26 July accused China of increased provocations against other claimants in SCS and said that it was only matter of time before major incident because of China’s “aggressive and irresponsible behaviour.” On sidelines of Mekong-Lancang foreign ministers’ meeting in Bagan, Myanmar, Wang Yi and Vietnamese FM Bui Thanh Son 5 July agreed to advance maritime cooperation and promote talks to handle conflict over SCS.
Australia accused Chinese aircraft of dangerous interception in South China Sea (SCS), while U.S. and China traded barbs during international Shangri-La summit. Australia 5 June reported Chinese J-16 fighter conducted “dangerous manoeuvre” close to Australian P8 military surveillance plane flying near Paracel Islands in SCS; China 7 June said Australian aircraft “seriously threatened China’s sovereignty and security” and Chinese countermeasures were “professional, safe, reasonable and legitimate”. Chinese Eastern Theatre Command 6 June announced beach landing exercises conducted by three landing ships in SCS waters. Philippines 11 June protested Chinese actions in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, including illegal fishing, shadowing Filippino vessels on rotation and resupply mission, and blocking shoal entrance with buoys and fishnets. Outgoing Philippines FM 23 Jun said talks over joint energy exploration with China in SCS were terminated. Philippines 28 June protested Taiwan’s live-fire drills near Itu Aba in Spratly Islands. SCS emerged as central topic during international summit Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore 10-12 June. Notably, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin 11 June called out China for building “outposts on man-made islands bristling with advanced weaponry to advance its illegal maritime claims”; Chinese Defence Minister Wei Feng He 12 June called for SCS to be “sea of peace, friendship and cooperation” while condemning “some big power” who practised “navigation hegemony”; Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen same day compared SCS situation to currently blockaded Black Sea, while Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein cautioned tensions could degenerate into deadly conflict.
U.S. and Southeast Asia regional body ASEAN pledged deeper cooperation in South China Sea (SCS), while China imposed annual fishing ban. U.S. and ASEAN 12-13 May held summit in U.S. capital Washington D.C., during which they elevated relationship to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership; 14 May published Joint Vision Statement recognising “benefits of having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability, and prosperity” and committing “to advancing our cooperation in the maritime domain through ASEAN-led mechanisms”. U.S. 12 May announced $60mn assistance, with which U.S. Coast Guard will train and help ASEAN countries combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. China 1 May began annual fishing ban covering waters of South China Sea north of 12 degrees latitude until Aug 16, Bohai Sea and Yellow Sea until 1 Sept, and East China Sea until 16 Sept, citing marine conservation; move proceeded despite Vietnam 29 April protesting ban, which they see as “violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and territorial jurisdiction”. According to 13 May Nikkei Asia report, Indonesia considered making Natuna Islands special economic zone, in move likely aimed both at attracting investment and increasing maritime security against expanding Chinese activities in area. Philippines 31 May filed diplomatic protest over Chinese fishing ban in SCS, condemning Chinese Coast Guard activities as “clear violations of the Philippine maritime jurisdiction”. Meanwhile, Chinese naval frigates early May held “high-intensity multi-subject combat training exercise” at unannounced sea area. China and ASEAN due to finalise code of conduct agreement at meeting planned for June. U.S. navy’s USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group 9 May conducted deterrence exercises in Philippine Sea. “Quad” leaders of U.S., Australia, India and Japan 24 May reaffirmed commitment to meet “challenges to the maritime rules-based order” in “East and South China Seas” and condemned “militarisation of disputed features”.
Beijing stepped up diplomatic engagement with Philippines, while Manila and Tokyo expanded defence cooperation. Ahead of Philippines election in May, Chinese FM Wang Yi 3 April met Filipino FM Teodoro Locsin, urging Manila to avoid external “disturbances” to its China policy and prevent tension over South China Sea (SCS) disputes. Filipino President Duterte 8 April spoke to Chinese President Xi; both leaders called for restraint in SCS. Meeting coincided with conclusion of U.S.-Philippines Balikatan Exercise on 8 April involving 8,900 troops and aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln – largest iteration of annual joint drill since 2015. Japan and Philippines 9 April agreed to expand defence cooperation following first “2+2” meeting of foreign and defence ministers; official statement condemned “unlawful maritime claims, militarisation, coercive activities and threat or use of force” in SCS, without naming specific countries. China’s J-20 stealth fighter manufacturer 13 April confirmed jets had begun to be used to patrol SCS, generating concern among regional powers over balance of air in region amid growing militarisation. Chinese navy 23 April celebrated its 73rd anniversary 23 April and announced commissioning second Type 075 amphibious assault ship and sixth Type 055 large destroyer, as well as hinting that third aircraft carrier will be revealed soon.
China conducted military drills in South China Sea (SCS), while Philippines protested Beijing’s “incursion” in Sulu Sea and dangerous manoeuvres around disputed islands. China conducted naval drills 4-15 March in SCS approximately halfway between China’s Sanya city, Hainan province, and Vietnam’s Hue city, Thua Thien Hue province, with roughly half of area within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone; Hanoi 7 March beseeched China to “respect Vietnam’s EEZ” and stop “any act that complicates the situation”. Vietnamese journalist 6 March reported that Chinese air force Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft 1 March crashed into SCS during drills off Hainan; Taiwan’s Defence Ministry 10 March confirmed crash. China 23 March conducted aerial exercises over SCS with over ten recently upgraded J-11B fighter jets. Chinese FM Wang Yi 7 March said Code of Conduct on SCS could be concluded but urged South East Asia regional body ASEAN to resist “non-regional countries” that “meddle” in area and “do not want the South China Sea to be calm”. Philippines’ Foreign Ministry 12 March summoned China’s ambassador to explain “illegal incursion” by Chinese navy reconnaissance ship in Sulu Sea 29 Jan-1 Feb. Manila 27 March announced that Chinese Coast Guard ships had four times manoeuvred dangerously close to Philippine Coast Guard ships in vicinity of Scarborough Shoal, including incident 2 March when China Coast Guard ship drew within 20m of Philippine vessel. U.S. Admiral John C. Aquilino of Indo-Pacific Command 20 March decried Chinese militarisation of Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross in SCS. China 22 March said it had “a right … in line with international law” to develop islands “on its own territory”. U.S. and Philippine armed forces 28 March started annual Balikatan joint exercise, due to end 8 April.
U.S. and its allies reiterated commitment to international law in South China Sea (SCS), calling on China to follow suit. U.S., Australian, Indian and Japanese FMs in 11 Feb Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) meeting reaffirmed commitment to “free, open and inclusive rules-based order” and “adherence to international law” in East and South China Seas. U.S. State Dept 12 Feb released study concluding that China “asserts unlawful maritime claims in most of the South China Sea, including an unlawful historic rights claim” and called on Beijing to “conform its maritime claims to international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention” and “to cease its unlawful and coercive activities in the South China Sea”. Chinese naval vessel 17 Feb shone military-grade laser at Australian air force plane in Arafura Sea, within Australia’s exclusive economic zone; Australia’s defence ministry 19 Feb described action as “unprofessional and unsafe military conduct” while Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton called it “aggressive bullying”. U.S. House of Representatives 3 Feb passed non-binding resolution asserting that U.S. interest would be served by ratifying UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Following crash of F-35C fighter jet on deck of USS Carl Vinson operating in SCS last month, carrier 14 Feb returned to U.S.; as of 20 Feb, U.S. navy had not recovered jet in region.
China protested U.S. military activities in South China Sea, while Washington issued report disputing basis of Beijing’s maritime claims. Chinese military 20 Jan said U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold sailing around Paracel Islands “illegally entered China’s Xisha territorial waters” and had been given “eviction” warning; U.S. Navy same day challenged claims, said Chinese move posed “serious threat to the freedom of the seas”. U.S. response comes on heels of 13-17 Jan joint training operations in South China Sea (SCS) between Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group and Essex Amphibious Ready Group, including 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. U.S. State Dept in 12 Jan report said China’s declaration of “historic rights” over SCS “is deficient for its vagueness” and unlawful; Philippines 21 Jan welcomed report as “consistent with Philippines-U.S. Joint Vision Statement”. Chinese FM Wang Yi 17 Jan during virtual forum organised by Chinese embassy in Philippines stressed importance of not “imposing one’s own will on the other”, vowed to work with Philippines to resolve tensions in SCS. Philippine Defence Secretary Lorenzana 14 Jan said that Philippines had finalised deal to acquire shore-based anti-ship missile system from India. Chinese media 7 Jan claimed Vietnamese militia-armed fishing boats were being built in Da Nang town, Vietnam, and launched on trial voyages; Vietnamese foreign ministry 14 Jan said all activities in SCS adhered to international law. Japanese PM Fumio Kishida and Australian PM Scott Morrison 6 Jan signed reciprocal access agreement set to go into effect “as early as possible.” Malaysian FM Saifuddin Abdullah 19 Jan raised concern over Beijing’s shift from disputing “nine-dash line” water territories to disputing “Four Sha” land territories, which “is even more serious” than former.
China conducted live-fire military drills, U.S. and EU voiced concern over Chinese actions, and South Korea and Australia reaffirmed commitment to international law. Chinese media 7 Dec reported that Chinese military practiced dropping live bombs and laying sea mines on South China Sea (SCS) islands using H-6J strategic bombers. Beijing think-tank South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative 14 Dec claimed U.S. Air Force sent spy plane on reconnaissance mission along Chinese coast, near locations of Chinese live-fire drills; at least two drills concluded 17 Dec near Hainan Island and in Beibu Gulf between China and Vietnam. Chinese media 19 Dec reported Chinese aircraft carrier set out for combat drills in SCS; 29 Dec reported exercises of amphibious assault ship Hainan in SCS. U.S. Deputy Sec State Wendy Sherman and EU European External Action Service Sec Gen Stefano Sannino 3 Dec said China’s actions in SCS, East China Seas and Taiwan Strait “undermine peace and security in the region”, expressing “strong concern” over China’s “problematic and unilateral actions” in disputed seas in Indo-Pacific that “run counter to the shared values and interests of the United States and the EU”. U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken in 14 Dec visit to Indonesia said U.S. is “determined to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea”. Australian PM Scott Morrison and South Korean President Moon Jae-in 13 Dec adopted joint statement recognising “stability of the Indo-Pacific depends on adherence to international law in the maritime domain, including in the South China Sea”. Indonesian House of Representatives member Muhammad Farhan 1 Dec said China demanded Jakarta stop oil and gas drilling at sea, claiming drills took place in waters claimed by China, and that Beijing protested joint military exercises with U.S. held in Aug.
Maritime incident between Philippines and China at shoal in Spratly Islands further crystallised regional tensions. Philippine FM Teodoro Locsin Jr 18 Nov condemned three Chinese coast guard vessels for 16 Nov blocking and using water cannons against two Philippine supply boats en route to Second Thomas Shoal/Ayungin Shoal, Philippines-controlled atoll in Spratly Islands also claimed by China. China’s foreign ministry same day said Philippine boats entered waters near shoal “without China’s consent” and its “coastguards, vessels, upheld China’s sovereignty in accordance with law”. Manila 17 Nov lodged diplomatic protest with Beijing, while U.S. 19 Nov reaffirmed “that an armed attack on Philippine public vessels in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defence commitments”. After summoning Chinese ambassador in Oct over maritime incursions into its exclusive economic zone, Malaysia’s foreign ministry 11 Nov reported support for continuing code of conduct negotiations between regional body ASEAN and China; Chinese FM Wang Yi 14 Nov expressed desire to fast-track code of conduct negotiations. Summit between China and ten ASEAN countries partly focused on South China Sea held 22 Nov, with parties supporting “early conclusion of an effective and substantive [code of conduct] that is in accordance with international law including the 1982 UNCLOS, within a mutually-agreed timeline”. Two Japanese vessels 5-7 Nov conducted exercise with the Vietnam People’s Navy frigate Đinh Tiên Hoàng in Cam Ranh city, Vietnam, and Japanese navy 16 Nov held first joint anti-submarine drill with U.S. in South China Sea. Vietnam’s foreign ministry 18 Nov called patrols and military drills by Taiwan in sea surrounding Itu Aba island, part of Vietnam’s claim to Spratlys, “serious violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty over the islands” that risks “escalating and complicating the situation”. German Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbach 6 Nov signalled willingness to dispatch vessel to Indo-Pacific every two years to maintain rules-based order.
U.S., UK and allies conducted joint maritime exercises throughout month, while Malaysia protested Chinese maritime presence in country’s exclusive economic zone. Maritime activity continued. Chinese research institute 4 Oct reported USS Carl Vinson and HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers had crossed Bashi Channel and entered South China Sea (SCS) for second time since July. USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson carrier strike groups, alongside UK Royal Navy carrier strike group and Japan Maritime Self-Defence Forces, 2-3 Oct conducted operations in Philippine Sea; drills included navy frigates and personnel from Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand. U.S. nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Connecticut 2 Oct collided with “unknown underwater object” in SCS. HMS Queen Elizabeth 9-10 Oct conducted joint exercises with Singapore military. Five Power Defence Arrangements nations – Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and UK – 8-18 Oct conducted sea and air exercises in SCS to mark fiftieth anniversary of alliance. USS Carl Vinson strike group 25 Oct began joint training exercises with Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force’s JS Kaga in SCS. Meanwhile, Malaysian foreign ministry 4 Oct said it had summoned Chinese ambassador for second time this year to “protest against the presence and activities of Chinese vessels, including a survey vessel, in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone off the coasts of Sabah and Sarawak”; Chinese survey vessel left zone 18 Oct. Following high-level meeting in Indonesian capital Jakarta 18 Oct, Malaysian FM Saifuddin Abdullah expressed “concern and disturbance” over Australia-UK-U.S. “AUKUS” defence pact while Indonesian FM Retno Marsudi warned of tensions caused by “arms race and power projection”.
Australia, UK and U.S. unveiled trilateral defence pact that provoked mixed reactions in region, while Chinese naval forces conducted military exercises. Australia, UK and U.S. 15 Sept announced “enhanced trilateral partnership” dubbed “AUKUS”, which includes key agreement to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines and provisions to cooperate on emerging technologies. Chinese foreign ministry next day said AUKUS would “seriously damage regional peace and stability, exacerbate an arms race and harm international nuclear non-proliferation agreements”. Malaysian PM Ismail Sabri Yaakob in 17 Sept phone call to Australian PM Scott Morrison said agreement could “provoke other powers to act more aggressively, especially within the South China Sea”, while Indonesian foreign ministry same day said it was “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”. Filipino FM Teodoro Locsin Jr 19 Sept expressed support, saying the “enhancement of a near abroad ally’s ability to project power should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilise it”. Meanwhile, Chinese state media 8 Sept reported its naval forces same day conducted amphibious landing exercise in SCS, 9-10 Sept conducted live-fire exercises in western area of Leizhou Peninsula, and 18 Sept dispatched Y-20 large transport aircraft from mainland to airfields in Spratly Islands to conduct “amphibious landing drills”, marking first time China dispatched large transport aircraft near reefs according to Chinese media. Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi 11 Sept visited Vietnam, reportedly told Vietnamese Deputy PM Phạm Bình Minh that both countries should refrain from exacerbating maritime disputes. German foreign ministry 15 Sept said China had denied request for Shanghai port visit of its frigate embarking on six-month mission to SCS. U.S. Navy Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group returned to SCS 24 Sept for exercises and training. EU 16 Sept released Indo-Pacific strategy urging “cooperation to maintain and ensure maritime security and freedom of navigation”. Joint statement following first in-person leaders’ summit of “Quad” on 24 Sept noted commitment to “freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes” in Indo-Pacific.
Region witnessed uptick in military activity as China as well as U.S. and its allies held naval exercises; Washington deepened diplomatic ties with claimant parties. U.S. 1 Aug concluded joint naval exercise off Australian coast, involving 17,000 military personnel from Australia, UK, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. U.S. 4 Aug announced further combined naval and amphibious exercise running until 27 Aug with Australia, Japan and UK, coinciding with global naval exercises, largest since 1981, that included two U.S. aircraft carriers and UK’s carrier; China 4 Aug announced military drills in SCS 6-10 Aug reportedly in response to “US military’s Indo-Pacific exercise”, according to state-run media. Malaysian military 6-12 Aug carried out exercise “Taming Sari” in SCS, including test-fire of three live anti-ship missiles. On diplomatic front, U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken 3 Aug announced launch of “strategic dialogue” with Indonesia and reaffirmed commitment to freedom of navigation. Blinken 9 Aug reaffirmed that “it is the business” of U.S. to resolve dispute in SCS and urged every member to “peacefully resolve disputes”; Chinese Deputy Ambassador to UN Dai Bing same day responded that U.S. failure to ratify UN Convention on Law of the Sea gave it “no credibility” and that U.S. is “biggest threat to stability” in region. U.S. VP Kamala Harris 22-24 Aug visited Singapore, affirming “commitment to a longstanding relationship...with the Indo-Pacific region”; Harris 24 Aug rebuked China for “coercion” in SCS. In Vietnam 24-27 Aug, Harris told Vietnamese officials that U.S. supports upgrading ties from comprehensive to strategic partnership. China 27 Aug issued new regulations requiring, from 1 Sept, range of foreign vessels to notify authorities when entering what Beijing claims are China’s territorial waters.
Maritime tensions continued amid regional military activity, while Canada, Germany and U.S. voiced support for 2016 international court ruling. Maritime activity continued in region. U.S. navy 12 July announced that destroyer USS Benfold conducted freedom of navigation operation near Paracel Islands “to uphold rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of sea recognised in international law”; in response, China’s Southern Theatre Command same day claimed its forces “drove away” USS Benfold from waters and urged U.S. to stop “provocative actions”. China’s Southern Theatre Command 18 July announced it had recently conducted exercise in SCS that included planes, ships, submarines and land-based missiles. Philippines’ Coast Guard 13 July issued verbal challenge to Chinese naval vessel near Marie Louise Bank; Chinese vessel eventually moved away from area. UK aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth 30 July arrived in SCS to conduct freedom of navigation operations alongside U.S. navy. Earlier in month, think-tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative 8 July reported China Coast Guard had regularly challenged Malaysian pipe-laying vessel contracted to Malaysian oil company Petronas at Kasawari gas field, off of Sarawak state coast, since its arrival in area early June. On diplomatic front, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer 6 July met with Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe via video conference and discussed SCS; Kramp-Karrenbauer raised importance of upholding 2016 arbitration decision by Permanent Court of Arbitration that limited China’s claims to some sea areas, which China has called null and void. U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken 11 July issued statement to mark fifth anniversary of court’s ruling and reaffirmed U.S. support for verdict; Blinken also stated that “armed attack on Philippines armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defence commitments”. Canada’s foreign ministry 11 July issued statement expressing concern at “China’s escalatory and destabilising actions in the East and South China Seas” and support for 2016 arbitral tribunal award. U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin 26-30 July visited Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam; in Singapore, Austin 27 July said China’s SCS claims have “no basis in international law”.
Regional defence ministers expressed support for legally binding code of conduct in South China Sea (SCS), while tensions persisted between China and claimant parties. During Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus of South East Asia regional organisation ASEAN and partner countries, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin 16 June highlighted China’s “unlawful behaviour” in SCS, while Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe said that “China is determined to safeguard the country’s core interests”. ASEAN ministers 16 June underlined in declaration need for “early conclusion of an effective and substantive [Code of Conduct]”. During visit to Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell 3 June said EU supports “ASEAN-led process towards an effective and legally binding Code of Conduct” for SCS. China National Radio 10 June reported that Chinese Army Rocket Force had recently conducted exercises involving “carrier killer” DF-26 ballistic missiles. Following late May flight of 16 Chinese Air Force planes within 110km of Malaysia’s Sarawak state, near Malaysian-administered Luconia Shoals, Kuala Lumpur dispatched pair of combat aircraft to identify and intercept Chinese aircraft and 1 June said it would summon China’s envoy; Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur 1 June insisted aircraft were on “routine flight training” manoeuvre, while Malaysian FM Hishammuddin Hussein called Chinese action “breach of the Malaysian airspace and sovereignty”. U.S. Navy 10 June reported that guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur and Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Ballarat 6-11 June held exercises in SCS. U.S. and Indonesia 25 June agreed plans for maritime training centre on Indonesia’s Batam Island in Singapore Strait.
Tensions persisted between Philippines and China over Chinese maritime presence at disputed reef in South China Sea (SCS). Following heated exchanges in April over incursion by Chinese vessels at disputed Whitsun Reef, Philippines 3 May confirmed it had lodged diplomatic protest over Chinese Coast Guard harassment of Philippine Coast Guard ships 24-25 April; Philippines 29 May confirmed it had filed 100 protest notes against China’s maritime presence in SCS since 2016. Philippine FM Teodoro Locsin 3 May tweeted that Chinese vessels should leave Manila’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Manila 5 May rejected annual summer fishing ban imposed by China in northern SCS. Philippine Navy 12 May reported that 287 Chinese maritime militia vessels were in Philippine waters as of 9 May. At 27th Southeast Asia Regional Group (ASEAN)-China Senior Officials’ Consultation, Philippine Acting Undersecretary for Bilateral Relations and ASEAN Affairs Elizabeth Buensuceso 18 May called on member states and China to comply with 1982 UN Convention on Law of Sea and to uphold 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties. Meanwhile, Chinese Navy 2 May said that its Shandong aircraft carrier task group conducted routine training exercises in SCS. U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur 20 May conducted Freedom of Navigation operation in vicinity of Paracel Islands; Beijing same day said U.S. warship had illegally entered its territorial waters. Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga 11 May said Japan “strongly opposes” China’s growing maritime assertiveness in region during phone call with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc. U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken 27 May spoke with Vietnam’s FM Bui Thanh Son, affirming “shared commitment to protecting and preserving the rules-based order in the South China Sea”.
Heated exchanges continued between Philippines and China over Chinese maritime presence at disputed reef in South China Sea (SCS). Following late March diplomatic protest over continued presence of some 200 Chinese vessels at disputed Whitsun Reef, Filipino FM Teodoro Locsin 2 April met Chinese FM Wang Yi in Nanping city in China; Wang said China is willing to work with Philippines to fully abide by 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties. Filipino Secretary of Defence Delfin Lorenzana next day demanded that Chinese ships at Whitsun Reef “get out”; in response, Chinese embassy in Manila reiterated assertion that Chinese fishermen have traditionally fished at reef; Filipino MFA 5 April denounced Chinese embassy’s attempt to promote “clearly false narrative of China’s expansive and illegitimate claims”. U.S. Sec State Blinken 8 April spoke with Filipino FM Locsin about Whitsun Reef and again affirmed Mutual Defence Treaty applied to SCS. U.S. and Philippine armed forces 12 April commenced annual two-week “Balikatan” joint military exercises. Philippines 12 April summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to convey Manila’s dismay over “illegal lingering presence” of Chinese ships at Whitsun Reef, after which “both sides affirmed the use of peaceful settlement of disputes”; 14, 21 April filed further diplomatic protests concerning disputed reef. President Duterte 19 April said in public address that he would send navy ships to SCS to “stake a claim” to resources. EU 24 April issued statement noting presence of Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, opposed “unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability”. Filipino coast guard 26 April deployed numerous vessels for training in SCS; in response, Beijing 28 April protested; Lorenzana same day said China has “no authority” to prevent drills. Meanwhile, U.S. military activity in region continued: aircraft carrier strike group USS Theodore Roosevelt 6-7 April conducted exercises with Malaysian navy in SCS; U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt then 9 April carried out exercises with USS Makin Islandamphibious group; China’s MFA 9 April called on U.S. to stop “inciting quarrels and sowing discord”.
Amid ongoing regional tensions and military activity, U.S. and China traded critical comments while Philippines protested Beijing’s maritime presence near disputed reef. Beijing late Feb announced naval military exercises in South China Sea (SCS), west of Leizhou Peninsula, from 1 to 31 March. Chinese MFA 3 March said freedom of navigation in SCS “should not be used as an excuse to endanger the sovereignty and security of littoral countries” and Chinese FM Wang Yi 7 March said instability and security risks in SCS “come mainly from outside the region”. Leaders of U.S., India, Japan and Australia 12 March held virtual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meeting, vowing to “prioritise the role of international law in the maritime domain.” Following meeting with Japanese counterparts, U.S. Sec State Blinken and Sec Defence 16 March expressed serious concerns over China’s “destabilising actions” in South and East China Seas; Blinken warned Beijing that U.S. “will push back if necessary, when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way”; Chinese MFA 17 March called statement “malicious attack on China’s foreign policy” and asserted China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over SCS. Philippines 21 March lodged diplomatic protest against China for deploying hundreds of maritime militia ships in “clear provocative action” at Whitsun Reef in Spratly Islands; Chinese MFA next day rejected claims, stating that ships were fishing vessels sheltering from rough seas; U.S. embassy in Manila 23 March issued statement saying: “We stand with the Philippines”. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte 25 March reportedly expressed concern to Chinese ambassador. Vietnam, which also claims reef, same day said China must cease violating Vietnam’s sovereignty. Philippine defence secretary 27 March said more Navy and Coast Guard vessels would be deployed to area, as well as light fighter aircraft. U.S. tech firm 25 March reported new Chinese construction on Subi Reef, near Philippine-occupied Pag-asa (Thitu) Island. Taiwanese defence minister 17 March confirmed govt increased personnel and armaments on Itu Aba island in SCS, warning “[China is] capable of starting a war”; U.S. and Taiwan 25 March signed agreement to enhance coast guard cooperation (see Taiwan). Germany 2 March announced it will send frigate to Asia in Aug, which will transit through SCS on its return.