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

Deteriorated Situation

Violent maritime confrontation strained ties between Manila and Beijing, while Philippines and partners conducted military exercises.

Violent confrontation heightened tensions between China and Philippines. Chinese Coast Guard boats 17 June shoved into Philippine navy vessels attempting to resupply the Philippine ship, BRP Sierra Madre, with food supplies; Chinese coastguards reportedly seized firearms, food airdropped and cell phones, damaged four Philippine navy boats, and forcibly towed one boat during encounter. Philippines foreign ministry 19 June said eight Philippine navy personnel injured during incident including one who lost finger from Chinese boat striking into Philippine boat. Manila 19 June released video of incident showing China Coast Guard sailors brandishing axes and knives while blocking the Philippine vessel attempting to reach Sierra Madre. Incident happened after China 15 June enacted new regulation permitting its coast guards to intercept and detain for up to 60 days foreign boats and crews suspected of “trespassing” in waters it claims. For its part, China’s foreign ministry 19 June said Philippine vessels “deliberately rammed” Chinese vessels, calling incident “professional and restrained”. Philippine executive secretary 21 June said incident on 17 June did not constitute an “armed attack” and therefore does not trigger the mutual defence treaty with U.S.; Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr 27 June reiterated that 17 June incident was not an armed attack. Earlier, Philippines navy 7 June accused China of blocking medical evacuation of marine near Second Thomas Shoal calling it “barbaric and inhumane”. 

U.S. & Philippines conducted military drills with regional partners. U.S. Navy’s Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Groups 11 June initiated military exercise Valiant Shield 2024, alongside Japanese (see China/Japan), French and Canadian forces. Naval forces from U.S., Canada, Japan, and Philippines 16-17 June conducted “maritime cooperative activity” in Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone. 

Vietnam expanded its features on Spratly islands. Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative 7 June reported Vietnam accelerated land reclamation in Spratly islands, expanding its features in past six months as much as it had in previous two years; Philippine navy official 10 June said navy was monitoring situation, noting “Vietnam does not initiate illegal, coercive, aggressive, and deceptive actions against us unlike China”.

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