In hot water: the South China Sea in crisis

By Joshua Bernald-Ross

On 22nd October, two Filipino ships collided with the People’s Liberation Army Navy off the coast of Second Thomas Shoal, a reef located in the South China Sea, 121 miles west off the island of Palawan.

This was the latest in a series of incidents involving these nations in this area. Earlier in October, a Chinese coastguard ship came within 1 metre of colliding with a Philippine patrol vessel. With regional tensions high and the USA being dragged into the scenario, the
situation seems to be at a tipping point.

So, what exactly is happening, and how did we get here? To understand why the South China Sea is so hotly contested, one must examine why it is such a strategically important area, not just to China and other regional countries, but to the whole world. The waterway is a vital trade route. China relies on it for 64% of its trade, with one-third of all global trade passing through it. Beijing
views military control of the area as invaluable when it comes to securing long-term trade security. Furthermore, it is estimated that
there are up to 11 billion barrels of oil and 5.4 trillion cubic metres of natural gas beneath the water. A lucrative prospect for any country; perhaps an unmissable one for the world’s largest crude oil importer.

The controversial ‘nine-dash-line’, drawn on Chinese maps in the early 1950s, lays claim over waters and islands across vast areas of ocean.

The controversial ‘nine-dash-line’, drawn on Chinese maps in the early 1950s, lays claim over waters and islands across vast areas of
ocean. Within its boundaries, it includes shoals and islands far closer to other countries than to its own shores, such as the aforementioned Second Thomas Shoal. Vietnam, the Philippines Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Brunei dispute China’s claims, which encroach on their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). The former two countries have frequently clashed with Chinese vessels over the years, including armed conflicts between Vietnam and the PRC in the 1970s and 80s.

Attempts have been made to resolve the issue. Following a confrontation between the Philippines and China at the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague ruled that tghe ‘nine dash line’ did not provide valid basis for China’s claims. In July 2023, guidelines were agreed to accelerate negotiations between China and ASEAN, the political-economic union of South-East Asian states, over establishing a Code of Conduct in the sea.

These efforts have done little to deter China. Land reclamation and infrastructure construction, both military and industrial, has
continued on Chinese-claimed sandbanks and shoals, including those expressly ruled as belonging to other claimant countries. Attempts to counter Chinese expansion, such as the Philippines’ continuous staffing of the deliberately marooned battleship BRP Sierra Madre, are now beginning to come under threat. China’s naval strength is simply too considerable for other countries to compete with; as such, they have for the most part been impotent to resist the increasingly aggressive activities.

However, frustrations may be beginning to boil over. Following the end of the relatively China-friendly tenure of President Rodrigo Duterte, relations between Manila and Beijing have soured. Philippine Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro likened China’s actions to “stealing your lunch bag, your chair and even [your] enrolment in school” while local foreign affairs specialist Andrea Chloe Wong wrote that relations are currently “at a low point… since 1975”. Likewise, Vietnam (the other major regional opponent to China’s claims) recently signed a previously unthinkable agreement with the USA in an effort to combat the influence of Beijing.

Foreign affairs specialist Andrea Chloe Wong wrote that relations are currently “at a low point… since 1975”.

The latest collision has done little to ease fears over further conflict in the area. Additionally, increased involvement from the USA has heightened the stakes. Following the Second Thomas Shoal incident, President Biden reiterated the USA’s commitment to a mutual defence treaty with the Philippines, warning China to not continue acting “dangerously and unlawfully”. Since then, the US has accused a Chinese jet of coming “within 10 feet” of an American bomber flying over the South China Sea on one of its regular patrols. The
participation of the US and China, the world’s two most powerful countries, means the repercussions of any conflict are likely to be
profound and global in nature.

So, what next? For China, it is a question of timing. The likelihood of US involvement will make Beijing wary of acting recklessly; they will not want to risk the territory they already hold in a conflict with an adversary as powerful as Washington. However, the clock is ticking. China’s GDP growth rate is projected to fall below 4% by 2027, far lower than the 9% average since economic reforms began in 1978. Many theorists have speculated that the CCP will look to maintain popular support through aggressive nationalistic foreign
action; whether this will involve a strengthening of their South China Sea claims is yet to be seen.

For the other countries in the region, it is a question of diplomatic balance. Reducing or cutting trade with China is an impossibility. China is ASEAN’s biggest external trade partner, and the economies in the area are inextricably linked; threatening that partnership would be an act of economic self- harm. However, the Philippines and Vietnam are unlikely to sit by and watch as more of their legally
sovereign territory is swallowed up by an increasingly bold PRC. The effectiveness of diplomacy in the situation is already waning – it may soon reach a breaking point. Until then, the world can only wait.

Image: Chang21liu via Wikimedia Commons

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