China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea has raised tensions over competing territorial claims and maritime rights. In July 2016, an International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea found in favour of the Philippines on fourteen of fifteen points in its dispute with China, ruling that Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claim is inconsistent with international law. China rejected the decision, but subsequently its relations with the Philippines have warmed. Tensions between littoral states and China remain, however, as do disagreements between Beijing and Washington over freedom of navigation and trade. The risk of clashes is real. Crisis Group seeks to reduce friction and promote shared stewardship of the sea and its natural resources.
The disputes in the South China Sea are fundamentally about claims of sovereignty, the broadest of which are staked by Beijing. The Chinese-U.S. rivalry, meanwhile, loads the dissension with geopolitical significance. Both major powers stand to gain by accepting the constraints of international law.
Claimant states and interested parties conducted range of military exercises.
Military activity in region occurred at high intensity. Indonesia 5-7 June held multilateral naval exercises off South Sulawesi involving 36 nations, including both U.S. and China. Vietnam 8 June demanded Taiwan cancel live-fire drills near Taiwan-occupied Itu Aba Island, citing direct violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty over Spratly archipelago. U.S., Japan, France and Canada 9 June concluded integrated sea exercises near Philippine Sea; in response, China reportedly deployed reconnaissance aircraft to monitor activities. Chinese naval ship Qi Jiguang 14 June arrived in Philippine capital Manila for four-day good-will visit. Japan, U.S. and Philippines 16 June announced plans to stage regular joint exercises in South and East China Seas, aiming to produce formal strategy document by end of year; Japan also reaffirmed support to enhance Philippines’ military capabilities through official security assistance announced in April. U.S. aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan 25-30 June docked at Vietnam’s port city of Danang, in third such visit by U.S. carrier since 1975.
In other important developments. Malaysia and Philippines 13 June signed agreements to end 18-year maritime border disputes in parts of Straits of Malacca and Sulawesi Sea. Philippine and Indian FMs 29 June urged China to abide by international law in South China Sea, most notably including 2016 ruling at Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which found that China’s declared “nine-dash line” has no legal basis.
Together with the Philippines, Vietnam is on the front line of maritime disputes with China. The risk of armed confrontation is low but growing. Hanoi should redouble efforts to build confidence, starting with less sensitive issues, and to establish an effective Code of Conduct.
The maritime dispute between China and the Philippines is simmering against the backdrop of strategic competition between Beijing and Washington. To keep tensions below boiling point, Manila should push for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as well as greater regional cooperation.
The South China Sea has long been a critical maritime passage, means of supply and trade route that was fought over by many claimants. Today the South China Sea is once again a 21st century flashpoint.
The long-simmering South China Sea dispute is doomed to escalate if the countries contesting its waters fail to take steps to reduce tensions.
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