“The potential for conflict between the United States and China is higher in the South China Sea compared to the Taiwan Strait, which is another arena of geopolitical tension”- Zhou Bo, Retired PLA colonel
China’s increasing military presence in waters traditionally under the control of the US naval fleet is intensifying the possibility of a confrontation between these global superpowers, especially amid a significant deterioration in their relations. This development is causing regional nations to question the extent of the United States’ commitment to the Pacific region, even though the US does not assert territorial claims in the South China Sea.
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South China Sea: A Nexus of Geopolitical Tensions
The US maintains defense agreements with Asian allies, such as the Philippines, which could potentially involve American troops in this disputed area. With growing concerns about Taiwan and the overall deteriorating US-China relationship, the South China Sea is emerging as another arena for competition where both sides aim to avoid displaying vulnerability. Adding to the complexity of the situation, Chinese diplomats and military officials are showing reduced engagement at a time when open communication could be crucial in defusing tensions.
Furthermore, China’s militarization of the South China Sea has compelled Southeast Asian fishermen, hailing from countries like the Philippines, which Chinese diplomats sometimes refer to as “small nations,” to relinquish fishing grounds they have relied on for generations. These fishermen face significant government pressure in this regard.
In the South China Sea’s disputed waters, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel employs a scrolling digital message board to convey a warning message to a Philippine vessel near the Chinese-controlled Scarborough Shoal. AFP
Territorial Disputes, Resource Conflicts, and Naval Confrontations
Zhou Bo, a retired PLA colonel who now holds the position of a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, emphasized that countries making territorial claims and the United States, which regularly conducts air and sea patrols in the South China Sea, should recognize China’s perspective. He asserted that his field of expertise required careful consideration of the situation.
“In my field,” Zhou explained, “the United States should either halt or reduce its activities in this region. However, given that such a scenario is unlikely, the risk of escalation will only rise. A robust PLA (People’s Liberation Army) can only become more resolute in safeguarding China’s sovereignty and national interests.”
Zhou further expressed his view that, in his area of expertise, the potential for conflict between the United States and China is higher in the South China Sea compared to the Taiwan Strait, which is another arena of geopolitical tension.
The most intense conflicts arise in the South China Sea, where Southeast Asian nations have rejected China’s assertion that the waterway, depicted on Chinese maps with a dashed line, falls under Beijing’s jurisdiction. In regions adjacent to Vietnam and Malaysia, Chinese vessels have disrupted activities aimed at exploring and developing oil and natural gas reserves. The Chinese coast guard has even used force to prevent its Indonesian counterpart from apprehending Chinese fishermen operating well within Indonesian waters.
In addition, Chinese forces frequently engage in confrontations with Philippine coast guard vessels attempting to access a small detachment of Philippine marines stationed at Second Thomas Shoal. This area, along with nearby Mischief Reef, is situated within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. (Control over such a zone grants a country rights to all resources within it, although foreign-flagged vessels typically enjoy unrestricted passage through most of these waters.)
In February, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel directed a military-grade laser at a Philippine Coast Guard boat that was attempting to deliver supplies to marines stationed on Second Thomas Shoal. This action resulted in temporary blindness for some of the Philippine sailors, as reported by the Philippine side. Furthermore, as recently as last month, the Chinese coast guard used high-intensity water cannons against resupply boats. In both instances, the Chinese Foreign Ministry justified its actions by claiming that the Philippine vessels were violating Chinese territorial sovereignty, leading to Chinese intervention.
Back in 1997, facing numerical and financial disadvantages, the Philippines beached a World War II-era navy ship at Shule, establishing a temporary base from which its troops could defend Philippine waters.
U.S. Involvement in the South China Sea
Despite lacking territorial claims in the South China Sea, the US 7th Fleet routinely conducts operations in the region with the aim of upholding freedom of navigation for all nations, as stated by the US Navy. (China contends that the presence of U.S. military vessels, particularly near Chinese-controlled facilities, escalates tensions.) Additionally, the United States is bound by security agreements with several Asian nations. Notably, the Philippines, once a colony of the United States, is linked to the United States through a mutual defense agreement, as Vice President Kamala Harris stated last year, indicating that it covers “armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea.”
This month, the US and Philippine warships sailed together in the South China Sea, with both navies planning a joint patrol later this year.
US backing has not consistently been as unequivocal as it is now. In 2012, Chinese vessels captured Scarborough Shoal, situated off the coast of the Philippines’ most densely populated island, despite what the United States believed was a negotiated agreement for withdrawal from the reef to ease tensions between the Philippines and China. Despite this act of Chinese aggression, US forces did not intervene to protect the shoal. As a result, Chinese vessels have predominantly maintained control over Scarborough since that time.
Analyzing the U.S. Response and Changing Dynamics in the South China Sea
“The U.S. reaction was largely confined to expressing opposition without taking further action,” remarked M. Taylor Fravel, who serves as the director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is also the author of a book on China’s defense strategy and geographical features. He highlighted the dispute, pointing out that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) established its military bases in the South China Sea through a three-phase process spanning from 2014 to 2016. “It’s plausible to speculate that a more robust response to the initial phase might have deterred the subsequent two phases,” he added.
In 2016, the tribunal issued a ruling that rejected China’s “historical claims” over a significant portion of the South China Sea. This ruling coincided with the inauguration of the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has since fostered stronger relations with China during his six-year term in office. Duterte chose to disregard the tribunal’s ruling, despite it being in favor of his country.
However, since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. assumed office last year, his administration has taken a stance against Chinese presence in the South China Sea. Additionally, Marcos has authorized the United States military to use several bases in the Philippines and has granted permission for the construction of others.
In conclusion, the South China Sea region is marked by territorial disputes, resource conflicts, and naval confrontations. The South China Sea has emerged as a focal point for geopolitical tensions, where the U.S. maintains defense agreements with Asian allies, such as the Philippines, potentially involving American troops in the area. Amid concerns about Taiwan and the overall strained U.S.-China relationship, both sides are striving to avoid displaying vulnerability. However, this complex situation is compounded by reduced engagement from Chinese diplomats and military officials, which hampers open communication that could defuse tensions. Despite the absence of territorial claims, the U.S. 7th Fleet regularly operates in the South China Sea to protect freedom of navigation, though this presence has been a source of contention with China.
(Based on the article published in New York Times)