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.
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.
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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