With increased pressure on Philippines, China is determined to assert sovereignty over South China Sea

China is claiming most of the South China Sea, despite a 2016 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) international arbitration panel that stated this position has no basis under international law. However, this ruling has not stopped the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from aggressively staking sovereignty, mostly through gray zone tactics such as using coast guard and fishing vessels. 

Gray zone tactics are coercive and aggressive activities designed to exhaust a foe without resorting to open combat. They stay below the threshold of triggering a major conflict to avoid drawing in the U.S., which is a treaty ally of the Philippines.

In an incident on March 5, the latest in a series of run-ins between the Philippines and China, the CCP’s maritime militia consisting of coast guard ships and fishing vessels, used water cannon, blocked and harassed Philippine supply boats on a resupply mission for troops stationed at the Second Thomas Shoal, known locally as Ayungin Shoal, that formed part of the contested Spratly islands. 

The water cannon shattered the windshield of one of the boats and injured four navy personnel. The Philippines also accused the Chinese Coast Guard ships of colliding with two of their boats, causing damage to the exteriors. 

In a statement on March 6, Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said: “The propaganda mechanisms of the PRC once again attempt to justify their illegal acts against Philippine vessels on their so-called “indisputable” claim over most of the South China Sea. They take great pains to mischaracterize their provocations as lawful under international law and the actions of their CCG and Maritime Militia as “professional, restrained, reasonable, and lawful. 

“This claim is, simply put, one that no right-thinking State in the world agrees with and which many outright condemn. The PRC’s vain attempt to manufacture and sell this story falters in the face of real incontrovertible facts.

“The acts of the PRC’s agents in the West Philippine Sea are patently illegal and downright uncivilized.

“We urge the PRC to be truthful and to be believable.”

Australia and Southeast Asian countries also called for restraint and an adherence to a rules-based order.

China’s flag. Photo credit: iStock/ HUNG CHIN LIU 

A region of geopolitical and economic importance

The South China Sea is a region of immense geopolitical and economic importance, and for China, in particular, it holds significant strategic value. 

Stretching over 1.35 million square miles and bordered by multiple countries including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan, the South China Sea serves as a critical maritime thoroughfare, hosting a significant portion of the world’s trade and energy resources. Control over this area has been a key point of contention among these countries, with China’s assertive claims and actions in the region drawing international attention and concern.

From China’s perspective, there are several reasons why the South China Sea holds such paramount importance. Firstly, it is a vital maritime corridor through which a substantial amount of China’s trade passes. As the world’s largest trading nation, with a heavy reliance on seaborne trade, ensuring safe and unhindered passage through these waters is crucial for China’s economic prosperity. 

The South China Sea serves as a crucial route for Chinese exports and imports, connecting China with markets in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and beyond. Any disruption to this flow of trade could have severe implications for China’s economy.

Secondly, the South China Sea is rich in natural resources, including fish stocks, oil, and natural gas reserves. These resources are essential for China’s growing energy needs and economic development. 

The fishing industry in the South China Sea is a major source of livelihood for many Chinese fishermen, while the oil and gas reserves beneath the seabed represent valuable assets for China’s energy security. By asserting its claims over the region, China seeks to secure access to these vital resources to meet its domestic demands and reduce its dependency on foreign sources.

Furthermore, control over the South China Sea carries significant strategic and security implications for China. The region is a key part of China’s maritime defense strategy, providing a buffer zone between China’s mainland and potential adversaries. 

By establishing a strong presence in the South China Sea, China aims to enhance its maritime defense capabilities and project power beyond its immediate coastal waters. Control over the South China Sea also allows China to monitor and control maritime activities in the region, safeguarding its national interests and ensuring that it has a say in regional security affairs.

Additionally, the South China Sea holds symbolic importance for China as a manifestation of its historical claims and regional influence. China has long asserted its historical rights over the South China Sea, citing ancient maps and records to support its claims. 

By asserting sovereignty over the region, China seeks to reaffirm its historical position as a regional power and a dominant force in Asia. Control over the South China Sea is seen as a matter of national pride and prestige for China, reflecting its status as a rising global power.

Made in China goods. Photo credit: iStock/ MikeMareen

Threat to freedom of navigation

China’s assertive actions, a major driving force behind the crisis, have drawn criticism and opposition from other claimant countries, as well as from the international community. China has conducted massive land reclamation projects, building of artificial islands, and the militarization of disputed features, with the construction of runways, ports, and military facilities. 

Furthermore, the crisis is exacerbated by the lack of a comprehensive and binding code of conduct among the claimant countries to manage their disputes peacefully. Efforts to negotiate a code of conduct have been slow and contentious, with disagreements over key issues such as the scope of the code, enforcement mechanisms, and dispute resolution mechanisms. 

The absence of a legally binding agreement has created a vacuum for unilateral actions and provocations by the claimant countries, further fueling the crisis and undermining efforts to de-escalate tensions.

China’s sovereignty claims and actions are seen as a violation of international law, particularly UNCLOS, which governs maritime rights and territorial disputes.

The U.S., in particular, has opposed China’s actions in the South China Sea, viewing them as a challenge to freedom of navigation and a threat to regional stability. The U.S. has a significant interest in freedom of navigation, given the strategic importance of the South China Sea for global trade and security. Therefore, the U.S. is conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims and assert a commitment to upholding international law. 

However, China remains steadfast in the pursuit of control and influence in the South China Sea. The CCP views the region as a core national interest and is unlikely to back down on their claims. China’s growing military capabilities, economic leverage, and diplomatic outreach have allowed it to assert itself more forcefully in the region, complicating efforts to resolve the territorial disputes through peaceful means.

U.S. dollar and renminbi. Photo credit: iStock/ Pla2na

China refuses to accept 2016 UNCLOS ruling

The Philippines’ limited military capabilities and resources have made it more vulnerable to external pressures and incursions in the South China Sea, necessitating strategic alliances and partnerships with other countries to bolster its defense and security posture.

The Philippines’ efforts to address the South China Sea dispute through peaceful and diplomatic means have been met with mixed results, as regional dynamics and power struggles continue to shape the situation in the region. The Philippines has pursued arbitration under international law, particularly through UNCLOS, to clarify its maritime entitlements and rights in the South China Sea. 

The landmark ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, which favored the Philippines over China on several key issues, provided a legal basis for the Philippines’ claims and further underscored the importance of upholding international law in resolving disputes in the South China Sea. Be that as it may, China, which is a State Party to UNCLOS, refuses to accept the ruling. 

The South China Sea crisis is escalating in recent years, posing a significant risk to stability and security in one of the world’s most important maritime areas. With a powerful and belligerent China not backing down, the highly volatile and tense situation in the South China Sea is not going to abate any time soon.

Top photo credit: iStock/ IvancoVlad

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