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Jun 3, 2013 | 10:30 GMT

China, Philippines: The Latest Conflict in the South China Sea

China, Philippines: The Latest Conflict in the South China Sea
STR/AFP/Getty Images

An ongoing standoff between China and the Philippines over the Second Thomas Shoal — a remote shallow coral reef in the Spratly Islands — could be a new flashpoint in the countries' ongoing territorial tensions in the South China Sea. The standoff is another example of Beijing's intention to enforce its territorial claims in the disputed waters. China's relatively advanced military and technological capabilities leave Manila with few options to physically counter Beijing's claim without relying on a third party. China is betting that a lack of willingness on the part of the United States will allow it to strengthen its occupation of the islands and islets it wishes to claim, and Beijing is working to force Washington to recognize China's maritime presence and interests.

On May 29, Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Beijing had kept its vessels, including a naval frigate, around the Second Thomas Shoal (which China calls Renai Shoal and the Philippines have named Ayungin Shoal) since the vessels were dispatched in early May. Gazmin's comment came during an informal talk with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing, who had expressed concern that the Philippines might build additional structures on the shoal.

The coral reef, which is 15 kilometers (9 miles) long and 5 kilometers wide, is located approximately 105 nautical miles (120 miles) from the Philippines' western island of Palawan and is part of the Philippines' 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone. The reef has been under the Philippines' control since 1999, when a tank landing ship, the U.S.-built BRP Sierra Madre, was run aground deliberately to mark the territory. The vessel has since served as an outpost for the Philippine military. Located very close to the southeastern fringe of Beijing's nine-dash line — a loose boundary line demarcating China's maritime claims in the South China Sea — the reef apparently gained Beijing's attention recently, and China has been pushing its territorial claim as justification for its presence in the water. The Second Thomas Shoal also is a strategic pathway to Reed Bank (called Recto Bank by the Philippines), which is believed to hold oil and natural gas resources that have piqued China's interest.

China's Strategy for a Physical Presence

Until now, China and the Philippines showed good intentions in the standoff in order to defuse immediate tensions. However, China's keeping vessels around the shoal — currently guarded by only a dozen soldiers aboard the BRP Sierra Madre — appears to be a tactic to gradually isolate the shoal and eventually deprive the Philippines of a presence in the area drawing China's interest. According to the Philippines, China's encroachment on the reef has made it difficult to rotate troops and perform maintenance operations and has blocked supplies (currently, the troops on the shoal have supplies for only half a month).

Map - Conflicting Claims in South China Sea

Map - Conflicting Claims in South China Sea

The current standoff is the latest episode in a string of maritime disputes in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines. Tensions between the countries over territorial claims in the sea resurfaced in 2010. China's determination to expand and strengthen its maritime boundary was exemplified by the seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 after a Philippine warship confronted several Chinese fishing vessels near the shoal. Following this, Beijing continued to carry out activities in other islands or islets within and surrounding the Spratlys. In fact, Manila has said that, based on China's occupation of Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines risks losing 38 percent of its entire Exclusive Economic Zone.

Moreover, Beijing appeared to have a particular interest in Thitu Island (called Pagasa in the Philippines and Zhongye in China), where the Philippines' military headquarters for the Spratlys is located. It seems as though Beijing's intention over the long term is to move forward with a military buildup adjacent to the island and conduct regular patrols in an attempt to encircle the Philippines' deployments in the Spratlys.

Beijing's Maritime Buildup

Over the years, Beijing's attention has turned to maritime territories to accommodate its appetite for economic growth and energy resources. China has entered into numerous competitions for control of islands and islets and extended its presence in the South China Sea. As part of this, Beijing has gradually enforced its claims based on the nine-dash line, using the line as a supposed historical justification and boundary for its intrusions into and presence in disputed waters. This strategy has become a dominant factor in the region's security environment, since it has been accompanied by a buildup of China's naval and civilian maritime forces and technological capabilities in deep-sea exploration and drilling. This has left little room for the Philippines, as well as other claimant countries such as Vietnam, to counter Beijing's claims.

Considered one of Asia's weakest militaries — and preoccupied with numerous internal insurgencies — the Philippine navy is inherently inferior to the Chinese blue-water navy gradually taking shape. Although the Philippines had attempted to shift the focus of its security agenda from internal disputes to maritime matters, its military is far from on par with China's, especially considering Beijing's massive military upgrade. Moreover, China is building up its civilian maritime vessels, which it relies heavily upon in its strategies for the South and East China seas: When Beijing dispatches civilian maritime enforcement ships to reaffirm sovereignty, it effectively precludes other countries from confronting it with ships of their own. This strategy also allows the civilian vessels — which are far more advanced than those belonging to other South China Sea claimants — to patrol the waters without necessarily sparking an armed conflict.

In addition, Beijing relies on offshore energy exploration as a means of physically substantiating its territorial claims. Through indigenous development and partnerships with foreign companies, Chinese state-owned offshore oil companies — particularly the China National Offshore Oil Corporation — have built a growing deep-water exploration capability far more advanced than the capabilities of the Philippines and other claimants. This leaves the Philippines two options should it pursue energy exploration in the South China Sea: either partner with China at the expense of acknowledging Chinese claims in the disputed area, or seek external corporate partnerships (which often fail early on because of the military threat from China and the uncertain outcome of exploration).  

Beijing's plan to gradually enhance its physical presence along the maritime boundary with the Philippines largely was driven by the Philippines' insufficient naval and coast guard capability and the lack of attention or assistance from outside powers, particularly the United States, the Philippines' security ally. Meanwhile, Beijing will find it logistically difficult, particularly during a crisis, to maintain a presence at all the islands, which are disconnected from each other. However, its actions around these islands have constituted a small-scale encroachment in its disputes with the Philippines and allowed China to test boundaries and highlight the United States' lack of action on behalf of its treaty allies in the region despite Washington's intentions to bulk up its presence in Asia. Ultimately, Beijing's intention may not be to monopolize the South China Sea, but to create a situation in which the United States will be forced to acknowledge China's interests and presence in the maritime sphere.

China, Philippines: The Latest Conflict in the South China Sea
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