Maritime disputes

Maritime disputes across the vast South China Sea have ratcheted up in recent years as an increasingly assertive China militarises disputed islands and confronts its regional rivals over their competing claims in the strategically important and resource-rich waterway.

Maritime disputes

Representation image

Maritime disputes across the vast South China Sea have ratcheted up in recent years as an increasingly assertive China militarises disputed islands and confronts its regional rivals over their competing claims in the strategically important and resource-rich waterway. This important water body is claimed by multiple governments but Beijing claims ownership over almost all the waterway in defiance of an international court ruling.

The Hague court which the Philippines had approached for adjudication had dismissed China’s claims as invalid in its ruling of July 2016. But Beijing dismissed it. Violating all norms and global laws, over the past two decades China has occupied a number of obscure reefs and atolls far from its shoreline across the South China Sea, and built military installations, runways and ports. The Philippines has taken umbrage at Beijing’s aggrandizement as these infringe on its sovereignty, besides violating maritime law.

With responsibility to secure maritime order, the United States regularly sends its Navy destroyers on freedom of navigation exercises close to the contested islands. This has led to fears that the South China Sea could become a flashpoint between the US and China. At stake is the 1.3 million square-mile waterway which is vital to international trade. An estimated third of global shipping worth trillions of dollars passes through this water body. It is also home to vast and fertile fishing grounds upon which many lives and livelihoods depend.


Much of its economic value remains untapped but China eyes this vast resource and wants to monopolise it. According to the US Energy Information Agency, the waterway holds at least 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil. If a single nation controls and then exploits this on its own terms, the impact on the environment could be huge as no global law can be guaranteed to be respected.

China’s aim is just that. The South China Sea is home to hundreds of largely uninhabited islands and coral atolls and diverse wildlife are at risk from climate change and marine pollution. In recent times, Beijing is testing Manila’s nerves in the disputed reefs. Chinese vessels time and again try to block Philippine ships from delivering supplies to troops stationed at the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.

According to a statement issued by the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea a few days ago, the China Coast Guard (CCG) and Chinese Maritime militia vessels recklessly harassed, blocked and executed dangerous manoeuvres in another attempt to illegally impede or obstruct a route resupply and rotation mission to BRP Sierra Madre (LS 57) at Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).

The West Philippine Sea is the name that Filipinos use for waters claimed by Manila in the South China Sea. Elaborating further, the statement further said that CCG vessel 5203 deployed a water cannon against Philippine supply vessel M/L Kalayaan. M/L or motor launch implies a smallsized motor-powered boat. Another supply boat, the Unaizah Mae 1, was “also subjected to extremely reckless and dangerous harassment at close proximity” by Chinese vessels inside the shoal’’s lagoon during their approach to BRP Sierra Madre.

Despite these Chinese attempts, both supply boats were able to successfully reach LS 57 (BRP Sierra Madre). Manila ran the World War II-era Sierra Madre aground in 1999 to serve as its outpost at the shoal and has to dispatch ships on a regular basis to deliver fresh supplies to the military personnel there. Chinese ships have repeatedly impeded and blocked Philippines’ rotation and resupply (RoRe) missions in recent times.

These are unprovoked acts of coercion and dangerous manoeuvres by China, putting the lives of Philippine personnel at risk. As per latest data, a total of 24 Chinese ships were involved in the incident, including four Coast Guard ships, the rest being maritime militia ships. By doing this, Beijing is testing Manila’s nerves by conducting such blockades with the hope that Manila will give up its RoRe missions.

That is unlikely to happen, though. Beijing needs to remember that the Philippines is a treaty ally of the US, and under a mutual defence treaty, Washington is obliged to defend its ally in case the latter is attacked. It may be noted that Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty “extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, and aircraft ~ including those of its Coast Guard ~ anywhere in the South China Sea.” Despite this, Beijing is not deterred.

It responded by saying Manila’s mission is “illegal”, and defended its actions, arguing that the Philippines’ actions violate China’s territorial sovereignty, violate the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and violate its own commitments. Beijing urged Manila to stop its infringing actions. Philippines also remain undeterred. Its embassy in China issued a demarche and protested against China’s actions.

As of 7 November, the Philippines had made 58 diplomatic protests against what it sees as China’s violations of its sovereignty in the South China Sea. In October, Manila summoned the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines to protest over two similar incidents, one of which led to a small collision of ships. The criticality of the issue is that the second Thomas Shoal is about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the Philippine island of Palawan, and more than 1,000 kilometers from China’s Hainan island.

It is claimed by the Philippines, China, Vietnam and Taiwan, but is located inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). That makes the issue extremely important for the Philippines. There is a sudden spurt in tensions after Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. succeeded Rodrigo Duterte who had adopted a soft approach towards China and reversed his policy by opting for assertive steps to protect Philippines’ claims to shoals in the South China Sea, leading to several confrontations with Chinese vessels in waters off the Philippine islands. But China’s response has been more aggressive.

The recent incidents show that Beijing feels confident to coerce smaller countries like the Philippines and will not hesitate to cross certain lines. Beijing is unconcerned that the Philippine Coast Guard remains committed to upholding international law, safeguarding the welfare of Filipino fishermen and protecting the rights of the Philippines in the territorial waters.

The spat between China and the Philippines has global implications as this is widely seen as a potential flashpoint for global conflict. The issue could be messy if Beijing chooses to be more adventurous and acts against the Philippines militarily because the US as a treaty ally would inevitably respond in the Philippines’ favour.

(The writer is a former Senior Fellow at the Prime Minister Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi)