Tensions between China and the Philippines spiked in March when a small civilian boat was confronted by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel about 160 kilometers from the Philippine coast.
The boat was trying to bring soldiers, food and water to a grounded Philippine Navy ship on Second Thomas Shoal, which serves as the Philippines’ last line of defense against further Chinese incursions into its waters in the South China Sea.
The incident took place just two days before the Philippines submitted its Memorial in a case filed before an arbitral tribunal established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Documented by journalists on board the small boat, the incident further proves that China has established an undeclared and paramilitary blockade against Philippine ships in the South China Sea. In 2012, China effectively took over the Scarborough Shoal, located well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. This Second Thomas Shoal incident is the latest flare in the ongoing contest for portions of the South China Sea. It marks China’s increasingly provocative movements against its maritime neighbors.
China’s adventurism in the South China Sea is a product of its impressive economic growth and aspirations to be a major maritime power. Its economy relies greatly upon maritime trade, and the South China Sea contains vital sea lanes needed to transport everything from fuel and raw materials to manufactured goods. Its coastal regions also host hundreds of Chinese fishing communities. The Chinese leadership must prove to these communities that the benefits of its economic growth are not funneled exclusively to coastal metropolises such as Shanghai. To protect its massive trade interests and demanding fishing population, China is investing heavily in military and civilian maritime assets to enhance its capability to project its naval might, as well as its fishing fleets.
While such provocative acts may be seen as rational from the perspective of an aspiring maritime power (its moves are basically patterned after the U.S. sea-power doctrine), China also claims almost the entire South China Sea as its exclusive waters. It no longer hides its intention to dominate this strategic region. In December, a Chinese documentary titled “Journey to the South China Sea,” released by the state-run CCTV-4, revealed that since 2007, China’s maritime law-enforcement agencies have confronted its neighbors’ ships in dangerous games of chicken, reminiscent of naval rivalries during the Cold War.
China claims the vast South China Sea waters on the basis of a creative reinterpretation of its history, which denies the long existence and equally legitimate rights and interests of its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors. Chinese records notwithstanding, the sea has historically been an international maritime commons, while the energy and fishery resources in adjacent portions of the South China Sea comprise the historical and natural heritage of states such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam. These countries also have exclusive rights to such portions, recognized in the modern international law agreed upon by all states (including China) and expressed in instruments such as the UNCLOS.
From the Philippines’ perspective, China began to deny it its long-standing access to the sea. In 2010 and 2011, China protested and interfered with offshore petroleum exploration just 50-100 miles from the Philippines’ coast. In 2012, the actual taking of Scarborough Shoal in response to a Philippine attempt to arrest Chinese fishermen for harvesting coral and endangered species demonstrated that China fully intended to deprive the country of its western EEZ and continental shelf. It did not help that Chinese media circulated hawkish proposals of “small wars” against its neighbors to retake the South China Sea by force.
With its back against the wall, the Philippines could do little but seek the support of its long-time ally, the United States, to dissuade China’s increasingly assertive and dangerous maritime incursions. It also took a huge risk by unilaterally launching international arbitration against China. It did so in the hope that international law afforded a more equitable venue for the protection of its maritime rights and interests.
China has steadfastly refused to participate in the arbitration, and it remains to be seen if the Philippine gambit will succeed. A decision could have a major impact on the future of the contested maritime region, a strategic nexus of global trade routes and a vital gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
While the present dispute is between the Philippines and China, the outcome may decide whether the South China Sea will remain part of the global commons or not. With precious little with which to challenge its giant neighbor, the Philippines can only hope that fortune truly favors the bold.
Jay L. Batongbacal is the director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).