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CNA Explains: Beijing vs Manila in the South China Sea – what’s the endgame?

MANILA: Unprecedented challenges in the South China Sea merit unprecedented action, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said last Saturday (Dec 16).

He was speaking after Philippine officials reported China using water cannons against their vessels at two disputed areas of the sea on two consecutive days.

There have now been four such incidents. And the latest led to the Philippines filing its 64th diplomatic protest against China this year, out of over 130 since Mr Marcos Jr took power in June 2022.

What happened in the South China Sea in 2023?

Some of the incidents reported by the Philippines include:

The China Coast Guard in February pointing a “military-grade” laser at crew members of a Philippine Coast Guard shipMore than 100 Chinese fishing or maritime militia vessels “swarming” waters around various disputed reefs, shoals and other features, on at least two separate occasions in June and DecemberChina installing in September a 300m floating barrier near Scarborough Shoal in waters it claims, which Manila removed saying it was a violation of international lawChinese vessels using water cannons in August, November and December on Philippine resupply missions which Beijing said had entered its waters without permission; the clashes also led to other actions which resulted in collisions and damaged boats at least twice

Each episode has been accompanied by a war of words. The Philippines has described China’s “unprovoked acts of coercion” as violating international law, damaging maritime assets and putting lives of Filipino crew at risk.

Beijing has said it’s applying “law enforcement activities” to deal with violations of “indisputable” Chinese sovereignty. This claim relies on what it calls “historic rights” to the South China Sea.

So does the South China Sea belong to China?

Depends on who you ask.

Back in 2009, China unveiled to the United Nations its “nine-dash” line laying claim to over 80 per cent of the South China Sea.

In addition to the Philippines, Southeast Asian countries Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the vast ocean, which serves as a crucial maritime route for over US$3 trillion in annual global trade, and as a key source of both fishing and gas reserves.

After a 2012 standoff between the Philippines and China in Scarborough Shoal, Manila took the matter to arbitration in The Hague the next year. 

The Philippines wants China to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS, which sets a country’s exclusive economic zone or EEZ at 200 nautical miles from a national landmass.

A historic 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling subsequently found that China’s claim had “no legal basis”. Beijing squarely rejected this as “null and void”.

Independent analyst Andrea Chloe Wong said the Marcos administration was attempting to mitigate the Philippines’ limited defence capabilities. But she warned that bilateral relations may be put at risk if Beijing views Manila as aligning more towards the West.

After the US criticised China over its most recent incident in the South China Sea, a foreign ministry spokesperson replied that Washington had “for some time been conniving at, emboldening and supporting the Philippines’ infringement and provocation” in the waterway.

Beijing had previously voiced disapproval over Manila allowing American forces use of its bases – one of which lies near the South China Sea – and accused the US of sowing tensions in the region.

Could all of this bubble over to something serious?

Rhetorical fears and warnings that the South China Sea might go the way of Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas have emerged in recent weeks. 

One American magazine called it “the most dangerous conflict no one is talking about”. 

The Philippine ambassador to the US also told Japan’s Nikkei that the waterway, not Taiwan, was “the flashpoint”; and that maritime friction there is akin to “the beginning of another war, world war”.

Mr Duterte also repeatedly disclosed in speeches that Mr Xi had warned of “trouble” if the Philippines drilled oil in areas of the sea claimed by China.

Related:

Philippine fishermen hope to fish freely at China-guarded Scarborough Shoal, as President Marcos visits Beijing

Commentary: Southeast Asia’s path in an age of limited US leadership

The US has vowed to come to Manila’s aid should maritime assets within its territory come under attack. A mutual defence treaty between the two considers an attack on one as an attack on the other.

Observers have suggested that Mr Xi might want to test the US’ commitment to its allies, as part of his strategy for the South China Sea.

But full-blown conflict is not likely to break out soon there, according to Mr Ray Powell, a project lead at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.

“I don’t believe there is an appetite for war on any side of this situation,” he told CNA.

“I think we are into an extended cycle of gradual, minor escalations as Manila pushes to fully expose the extent of PRC (People’s Republic of China) aggression and Beijing feels compelled to make an example of it.”

The Philippines has made a point to publicise developments in the disputed waters, including by frequently inviting reporters onto vessels.

Mr Powell described this as “assertive transparency” meant to counter China’s grey-zone tactics, which fall short of the threshold for acts of war but are aggressive enough to disadvantage weaker states.

Going by Mr Marcos Jr’s recent comments – and show of frustration – the diplomatic route may no longer cut it. 

Yet the president has also taken off the table the option of expelling Beijing’s envoy to the Philippines. For now, Manila is likely to continue formulating non-violent solutions to the repeated tense encounters at sea.

An interagency team of lawyers, for instance, has been formed to explore a fresh suit alleging “illegal harassment” by China.

“We have to come up with a new concept, a new principle, a new idea, so that we move, as I say, we move the needle the other way,” said Mr Marcos Jr.

“We have to come up with a paradigm shift.”

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