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.
The disputes in the South China Sea are fundamentally about claims of sovereignty, the broadest of which are staked by Beijing. The Chinese-U.S. rivalry, meanwhile, loads the dissension with geopolitical significance. Both major powers stand to gain by accepting the constraints of international law.
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.
Together with the Philippines, Vietnam is on the front line of maritime disputes with China. The risk of armed confrontation is low but growing. Hanoi should redouble efforts to build confidence, starting with less sensitive issues, and to establish an effective Code of Conduct.
The maritime dispute between China and the Philippines is simmering against the backdrop of strategic competition between Beijing and Washington. To keep tensions below boiling point, Manila should push for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as well as greater regional cooperation.
The South China Sea has long been a critical maritime passage, means of supply and trade route that was fought over by many claimants. Today the South China Sea is once again a 21st century flashpoint.
The long-simmering South China Sea dispute is doomed to escalate if the countries contesting its waters fail to take steps to reduce tensions.
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