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

Unchanged Situation

Tensions persisted in South China Sea (SCS) amid maritime encounters between China and Philippines, while U.S. and Manila held military drills and deepened security ties to regional partners.

Maritime tensions persisted between China and Philippines. In call with U.S. counterpart, Philippine National Security Advisor 1 April discussed China’s “coercive, aggressive and deceptive actions” in SCS; China’s foreign ministry same day urged Manila to immediately stop violating China’s sovereignty and its provocations at Second Thomas Shoal. Philippine National Security Council 3 April said it will not relinquish its position in Second Thomas Shoal, adding country’s measures against China will be “multi-dimensional”. Philippine President Marcos 8 April called on China to hold talks on recent SCS incidents. Underscoring persistent tensions between Beijing and Manila, China Coast Guard vessels 13 April blocked two Philippine govt ships for eight hours 35 nautical miles from Philippine coastline, as latter sought to conduct hydrographic survey in near contested Scarborough Shoal. China Coast Guard ships 30 April fired water cannons at Philippine vessel near Scarborough Shoal, damaging equipment.

U.S. & Philippines held series of military drills, including with regional partners. Coinciding with first combined military exercises between Australia, Japan, Philippines and U.S. in form of patrol 7 April in Manila’s Exclusive Economic Zone, China’s military same day announced it conducted “joint naval and air combat patrols” in SCS. U.S. and Philippines 8-19 April conducted combined air force exercise Cope Thunder north of capital Manila and 8 April commenced annual Salaknib exercises. U.S. Army 15 April announced it had deployed ground-based missile launcher to northern Luzon of Philippines for drills, marking first time U.S. had deployed mid-range missile system capability to Indo-Pacific; China 18 April said it “firmly opposed” it. U.S. and Philippines 22 April commenced annual Balikatan exercises, running until 10 May, which are second-largest ever and for first time will take place beyond Philippine territorial waters.

U.S., Japan and Philippines deepened trilateral cooperation. U.S. President Biden, Japan’s PM Fumio Kishida and Marcos 11 April held first-ever trilateral summit in U.S. capital Washington, DC; joint statement expressed “serious concerns” about China’s behaviour in East and South China Seas. 

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