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

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.

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