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 encounters between Philippines and China in South China Sea (SCS) continued to fuel tensions and strain relations. 

Maritime incidents ratcheted up tensions between Manila and Beijing. Philippines 1 May accused China’s coast guard of escalating tensions in SCS after Chinese vessels fired water cannons at two Philippine ships en route to Scarborough Shoal, causing damage to both; U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin next day accused China of “irresponsible behaviour”. Reports surfaced mid-May that Philippines had deployed ships to monitor Chinese activity amid allegations Beijing had created artificial island on Escoda (Sabina) Shoal. Philippine National Security Advisor Eduardo Ano 10 May called for expulsion of Chinese diplomats over alleged leak of phone conversation between Philippine Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos and Chinese attaché in which former purportedly agreed to Chinese demands related to Second Thomas Shoal; Ano accused China’s embassy of “disinformation” to sow discord. Admiral Carlos 28 May denied making “secret deal” with China. Philippine civilian group Atin Ito (“This is Ours”) 14 May embarked on resupply mission to local fishermen in Scarborough Shoal despite threat of Chinese blockades; Chinese coast guard 16 May claimed it drove away flotilla near shoal, while Atin Ito claimed “major victory”. Philippine Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro 24 May called rules permitting Chinese Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels in SCS “provocation”.

U.S. and Philippines concluded annual exercises. U.S. and Philippines 10 May concluded annual Balikatan military drills, which commenced 22 April, involving over 16,000 personnel and held in sensitive areas like Bashi Channel – critical waterway between Taiwan and Philippines. U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer 10 May sailed near contested Paracels to challenge “unlawful and sweeping maritime claims”; China, Vietnam and Taiwan claim island chain. U.S. Navy 26 May announced transit of SCS by Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt following Singapore port visit 24 May.

In other important developments. Group of twenty Taiwanese lawmakers of opposition Kuomintang and Taiwan People’s Party 18 May visited Taiping Island, urging President-elect Lai Ching-te publicly reaffirm Taiwan’s claim over island; island is also claimed by China, Vietnam and Philippines. Three Indian naval ships 7 May arrived in Singapore as part of deployment to SCS. 

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