In May 2013, China increased its presence near a Philippine outpost in the South China Sea. Chinese coast guard and other vessels were spotted only a few miles from Second Thomas Shoal. Since 1999, Philippine marines have occupied a dilapidated warship—the BRP Sierra Madre—atop this coral atoll in the disputed Spratly Islands. Manila’s foreign affairs department protested the onset of continuous Chinese patrols, calling them “provocative and illegal.” Other leaders acknowledged that Beijing could not be lawfully denied freedom of navigation around the reef, but still feared for the safety of Manila’s supply lines to its dilapidated garrison.
Scarborough Shoal is widely seen as the most palpable erosion of stability in the South China Sea since 2012. Three conclusions about the standoff, especially its initial stages, highlight opportunities to better manage disputes in the years ahead.
On its face, having coast guards patrol large bodies of disputed territory might be cause for optimism. But the way coast guards are employed in the South China Sea as blunt instruments to assert state power gives more cause for concern than optimism.
Country-level pragmatic calculations may contribute to more peaceful relations among claimant states, but risk driving ASEAN into total irrelevance as China shapes the regional agenda on its own terms.
Regular reporting on China’s island reclamations, or terriclaims, and related activities in the South China Sea appear to have missed one vital piece of analysis: how is China powering its new installations?
A critical and early Chinese test of U.S. resolve is likely to come in the South China Sea, where Washington has struggled to respond effectively to assertive Chinese behavior.
Those concerned with East Asian security need to think about what the South China Sea will look like five years down the road, and consider the politico-military-economic consequences of Chinese domination of the South China Sea.
It is understandable that some observers, especially in Asia, want to believe that Beijing has turned over a new leaf. But it is much more likely that tensions will return with a vengeance in 2017.
Security analysts have questioned whether U.S.-Philippine defense cooperation can survive six years of a Philippine president seemingly driven by anti-Western ideology. Those fears should be somewhat allayed, as Duterte has walked back some of his earlier pronouncements and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has declared that the Philippine-U.S. security alliance will not be abrogated and that the EDCA will stay in place.
The election is barely over, but the pressure will soon be on the new administration and its national security team to demonstrate U.S. resolve to support international rules and norms in the South China Sea.