The former sleeping giant, People’s Republic of China, is laying down more markers in the South China Sea. This time it’s the Scarborough Shoal, which is well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, as recognised by international law.
China claims the entire South China Sea as its territory, even up to the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries. Pretty tough stuff, but for China, might is right and nations like the Philippines, which has one of the weakest militaries in the region, are helpless against the growing military might of China.
Over a dozen Chinese vessels are in the disputed waters, some taking giant clams and corals protected under Philippine law. The flotilla includes vessels from China’s growing navy.
China’s dispute with the Philippines over what amounts to sandbars is but one element in a broader set of complex and misunderstood disputes over who owns what in the strategic region.
And the stakes are high.
Besides fisheries, the South China Sea is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas. Moreover, the sea is a vital shipping route, with an enormous percentage of world trade travelling through and over it, making it of vital self-interest to powerful trading nations like the United States.
There have been no serious armed incidents since 1988, when China and Vietnam clashed near the Spratly Islands—a collection of more than 750 reefs, rocks and tiny islands—in an incident known as the Johnson South Reef Skirmish. Vietnamese troops were killed so this was not mere posturing on the part of China. There have also been other, less serious, incidents.
China is asserting itself militarily and has shown it will not shy away from shedding blood. China refuses to negotiate the myriad South China Sea disputes multilaterally and appears to prefer picking off its neighbours individually. First there was Vietnam. Now, as that relationship seems to have settled down, the giant begins the process of bullying the Philippines. Whose next?
Almost one year ago, Philippine President Benigno Aquino warned the Chinese defense minister of a possible arms race in the region if tensions worsened over disputes in the South China Sea.
Well, tensions have worsened.