The Townhall

Fearing US influence, China demand “subservience” in troubled waters of South China Sea

By Umer Beigh

Three months after Vietnam and the Philippines signed an agreement to bolster its security and maritime corporations, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. strongly condemned Chinese incursions in the disputed South China Sea. 

On June 1, during a Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, President Marcos emphasized the Philippines’ stance, which is in stark contrast to Chinese assertive actions that aim to propagate excessive and baseless claims to force, intimidation and deception. 

“Illegal, coercive, aggressive and deceptive actions continue to violate our sovereignty and jurisdictions,” Marcos stressed. “The life-giving waters of the West Philippine Sea flow in the blood of every Filipino. We cannot allow anyone to detach it from the totality of the maritime domain that renders our nation whole,” he added. 

Since March 2023, tensions between China and the Philippines have escalated over the contested claims on the South China Sea. On April 30, Chinese vessels attacked the Philippine ship with high pressure water cannons, in a tense territorial standoff that has persisted for the past two months. The repeated use of water cannons by Chinese coast guard ships reflects their assertiveness regarding territorial rights in Scarborough Shoal. 

This is the sixth instance in the past nine months, a fraction confrontation between the Philippine and Chinese vessels have occurred, indicating their broader strategy of claiming the “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea.   

A grounded ship known as the BRP Sierra Madre has become a de facto base for the Philippines, used as an outpost to protect its territorial sovereignty. China, however, claims over 90% of the South China Sea and regularly encroaches on Filipino fishermen, leading to brewing animosity and concerns within locals to tab the potential of Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EZZ) which extends 200 miles beyond its coast as UN guidelines.

China has blamed the Philippines for violating the grounding of Sierra Madre. “Originally they (Philippines) said it was by an accident that the boat just rounded there and they are going to remove it. They have changed it saying they want to repair it,” Einar Tangen, Senior Fellow at Taihe Institute, said.

How significant is the South China Sea?

In 2016, at least $3 trillion trade and 30% maritime crude oil trade was conducted through the South China Sea. Due to its strategic importance, and the possibilities of major deposits of oil and gas, most of the ASEAN countries, including Vietnam and Philippines, contest the Chinese claim of the historic 1951 “nine-dash line” map.   

The Philippines have presented a more confrontational approach with China after the arrival of President Marcos, the son of the ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. This April, the Philippines and US even conducted a largest military exercise in Balikatan. 

Under Marcos rule, at least four US military bases have been installed since 2022, three of which are in the north close to Taiwan. The expansion is seen unfavorably by Beijing, and proximity of the US to disputed territory complicates the dynamics of the region and hinders Chinese larger ambition for the region: “This doesn’t indicate President Marcos has an anti-China policy. He simply wants China to behave in accordance with peace and stability,” Aries A Arugay, a senior fellow at Yusof Ishak Institute, informed CNA Insider.

On May 4, at least two Philliphone coast guard ships were blocked by the Chinese ships at Second Thomas Shoal. The video of the incident showed two Chinese coast guard ships hitting the smaller wooden-hulled boat Unaiza from close range. This incident invoked strong condemnation from officials of Japan and the US. 

The US has repeatedly thrown its support behind President Marcos, as a key strategic ally in the region, maintaining since last year that any attack on Philippine armed forces, vessels or aircraft in the Pacific including the South China Sea would invoke US commitment under Mutual Defence Treaty with the Philippines. 

The ongoing economic tussle between the US and China, in the past several years, has pushed the latter to enhance its military capabilities, especially its Chinese Coast Guards. This interplay of shifting economic and diplomatic strategies has rendered the 1990s Deng Xiaoping strategy of joint development ‘ineffective’. So much so that China didn’t feel obliged to the UN-backed court verdict in 2016 that ruled the Philippine has the sovereign right to extract the oil and resources from the South China Sea.  

Tensions with Vietnam

In his book titled Restless Empire, historian Odd Arne Westad posits that China is now an economic powerhouse that all of the rest of Asia orients itself towards, and its policies on all matters are of crucial importance for the whole region. “At the heart of the matter is the view, never completely forgotten or lost in Beijing and Hanoi, that China is the central state in the region, and therefore expecting, or demanding, subservience by others,” he writes.

China’s ties with Vietnam have a long history of cooperation and conflict. From fighting proxy war in Cambodia in 1980s to finding a new modus vivendi in 1991. Both of them have tried to mend their affairs and reform their troublesome relationship by improving the bilateral ties through trade. The trade between them grew from $32 million in 2021 to $172 billion in 2023.

But this bilateral relationship remains on the edge of a brewing territorial dispute since 2009 around the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, a conflict that is now threatening to overshadow much of China’s relationship with its neighbors.    

Many in capital Hanoi don’t want its coast to be controlled by the Chinese navy, they fear if Vietnam accepts the Chinese position, all its exploration of the rich resources under the seabed and rich fisheries in the sea above will be left out for China. This sort of resentment was visibly palpable in 2014. When anti-China riots swept across Vietnam over Chinese oil rigs. At least 21 people were killed and hundreds others injured after the crowd set fire to the industries and hunted down Chinese workers. 

Anti-Chinese sentiment had been simmering until the Chinese deployed an oil rig in disputed waters in May 2014. Vietnam has complained of facing bullying at the sea and land. The 1,300 kms border with China makes it more vulnerable with risk of land incursions.

Even though there is an ideological similarity and strong economic ties between China and Vietnam, the memories of “historical distrust” and deeper involvement in tourism and construction industry, Vietnam have raised concern over escalations with a neutral policy, reassuring China that it will not hurt its national interest in the region. 

The inception of its “Four Nos” non-aligned foreign policy is thus a manifestation of trying to uphold neutrality and a balanced relationship between the major powers including China. “At the moment there is very little optimism and very little positive prospect that code of conduct could deliver anything, because ASEAN, an association of Southeast Asian Nations, is no longer seen as the same,” Arugay remarked.

Amidst this unresolved conflict, any provocation over maritime boundaries, which is claimed by at least 10 countries partially or fully, could exacerbate flashpoints for regional players to vary their influence in Asia, and for foreign actors, especially the US, to exploit the strategic interests in the outcome.

“Right now, it seems Washington wants to keep this issue on a low simmer if not boiling,” Tangen opined.

*Umer Beigh is a journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir. His work has been published at several international media outlets including The Unbiased News, Ink Stick Media, The Contrapuntal, Express Tribune, New Frame, The New Arab among others. 

Todd Davis

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