The South China Sea dispute has been a constant source of tension in the Asia-Pacific region. Recently, it has flared up again due to a tense naval encounter between Chinese and Philippine ships.
Image Source: Reuters
The South China Sea is extremely important for world trade, as 1/3 of all maritime trade passes through it. Annually, an estimated $3.3 trillion worth of goods goes through the region. This gives all countries in the vicinity, especially China, special interest in the area, causing major disputes.
China looks to expand its influence in the South China Sea, which is vital for its maritime security. It seeks to improve its power in the region to secure trade routes as well. The Chinese have also started building islands in the region.
However, six other countries in the region—Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan (ROC), Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines—have claims in the region. Overarching claims by different countries and the strategic importance of the region have led to several diplomatic spats.
Recent incidents between China and the Philippines
On Sunday, April 23, a Chinese Coast Guard ship blocked a Philippine Navy vessel on patrol in the South China Sea. This was captured by journalists and news websites. The Chinese vessels followed the Philippine ships while sending radio warnings asking them to leave.
At dawn, the Chinese vessel came extremely close—less than 50 metres—to the Philippine vessel Malapascua and blocked its path. This caused a 30-minute standoff. However, the Philippine ships, outmanoeuvred and outgunned, were forced to withdraw from the disputed Second Thomas Shoal island.
Philippine naval officials say that this is a common Chinese tactic to deter the Philippine navy. In the buildup to this standoff, many Chinese ships did not respond to warning signals from Philippine vessels.
Chinese Militia Ships – Image Source: BBC
The spokesperson of the Philippine Coast Guard, Jay Tarriela, said: “China has long used tactics like shadowing, but now, because of the media, the whole world gets to see it”. The Philippine Foreign Ministry claims that the Philippines has the right to patrol the area and that the Chinese manoeuvres were dangerous.
On the other hand, China accuses the Philippines of trespassing into Chinese waters. At the same time, the U.S. was also conducting war games with the Philippine military, further spiking tensions.
The South China Sea Dispute thus continues to be a recurring source of friction between the nations of Southeast Asia. With growing tensions between the US and China, the role of US allies, Taiwan and the Philippines increases in importance.
The US aims to bolster its allies in an attempt to safeguard its interests and also protect their allies’ claims. The US has increased its involvement in the region drastically, through military cooperation with both Taiwan and the Philippines.
The Chinese, on the other hand, are continuing their strategy of expanding their naval power in the region and tightening their grip on the South China Sea. The Chinese goal is to gain control over all disputed islands, and to back up their claim of sovereignty over the region.
Tensions with Taiwan and the Philippines may lead to more flashpoints between the Chinese and the US in the future.