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Confrontation in the South China Sea

A tense standoff between China and the Philippines continued this week, as Beijing demanded that Manila withdraw a coast guard vessel from the waters around Scarborough Shoal, which both countries claim.

China maintains that the entire South China Sea is an internal Chinese lake and asserts sovereignty over all the islands, islets, and rock outcroppings in that massive waterway through which one third of the world’s trade passes. Scarborough, which Beijing calls Huangyan Island and Manila has renamed Panatag Shoal, is about 125 nautical miles off the Philippine coast but at least three times as far from the nearest Chinese shore.

The standoff began on April 8th, when a Philippine plane spotted eight Chinese fishing boats in the vicinity of the shoal. Since then, both China and the Philippines have sent ships to the scene. Manila has tried to “de-escalate the situation” by replacing a warship with a coast guard vessel, which is now facing off against two Chinese maritime surveillance craft.

The two sides have promised to settle the dispute diplomatically, but no negotiated settlement is in sight. This week Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario asked Beijing to submit the matter to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, a judicial body established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing ignored Manila’s request.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino has said his country will not risk war with China over Scarborough Shoal, but the only way he can do that is to surrender his country’s claims of sovereignty. The rhetoric this month from the Chinese capital has been nothing if not threatening. “The biggest miscalculation of the Philippines is that it has misestimated the strength and willpower of China to defend its territorial integrity,” wrote General Luo Yuan in the semi-official Global Times. Luo also warned that Beijing was giving Manila its “last chance” to come to agreement with China.  

Filipinos, Beijing should know, are not easily intimidated. And they have good reason not to be afraid of their large and belligerent neighbor across the sea. On Monday, the US and the Philippines, long-term treaty partners, began a 12-day joint military exercise in the archipelago nation.

Beijing, of course, is unhappy about the exercises. “The major trend of the times in this region is peace and development,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin. “Military exercise does not represent the major call of the times.”

Unfortunately, the exercises are absolutely necessary. China, by fishing close to the shores of other nations, has precipitated a series of international incidents in the region, some of them deadly. The current standoff with the Philippines will, in all probability, be settled peacefully, but the potential for one of these confrontations to escalate to armed conflict is growing.

In recent months, the Obama administration has committed additional naval and other military forces in the region to both reassure China’s nervous neighbors, as well as deter the threat of Chinese expansionism. Yet despite these American efforts, Beijing continues to test international will by dispatching its vessels to contested waters within very close reach of other countries in the region. China has neither halted its provocations nor toned down its demands for its expansive territorial claims.

The drift of events in the South China Sea, therefore, could hardly be more ominous.

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