Who can stop China’s territorial grab in SCS?

President Marcos recently disclosed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that the long raging disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) involving China, the Philippines, and other claimants “keep him up at night.” The dispute “keeps you up at night, keeps you up in the day, and keeps you up most of the time. It’s very dynamic, it’s constantly in flux so you have to pay attention to it,” Marcos said in response to a question from WEF President Borge Brende.

The problem with China is its duplicity. In January 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that China sought openness and inclusiveness instead of closeness and exclusion; international law and international rules instead of seeking one’s own supremacy; and consultation and cooperation instead of conflict and confrontation.

These statements sidestep a decade of destabilizing Chinese behavior in the SCS. For example, China grabbed the Scarborough shoal or Bajo de Masinloc from the Philippines by flexing its military might. The Chinese government unilaterally imposed a fishing ban in the Scarborough shoal, depriving Filipino fishermen of their livelihood. The Philippines’s sovereignty claims over Bajo de Masinloc is based on international laws because it is an integral part of the Philippine territory. It is part of the municipality of Masinloc in Zambales, and is located 124 nautical miles west of Zambales, which is within the country’s 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and part of the Philippine Continental Shelf.

China’s claim of over 90 percent of the South China Sea contravenes the established exclusive economic zones of Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Rival claimants, however, remain helpless because China asserts supremacy by force and dismisses international law tribunal rulings.

From Bloomberg: “China’s Coast Guard maintained near-daily patrols at key features across the disputed South China Sea last year, ramping up its presence as tensions over the waterway with Southeast Asian neighbors remain high, new tracking data shows. Patrols in the waters surrounding the Vanguard Bank off Vietnam, an area known for its oil and gas reserves and the site of repeated standoffs between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels, more than doubled to 310 days in 2022, according to the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.”

The number of days Chinese ships patrolled near Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands, where the Philippines maintains a garrison, increased to 279 from 232, while those at Luconia Shoals, near important Malaysian oil and gas operations, rose to 316 from 279, according to the analysis.

The patrols show Beijing’s determination to assert control over its claim to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, the analysis of ship identification data says, and raises the risk of a mishap at sea that regional officials worry could lead to a larger conflict.

“With CCG vessels operating in Malaysian, Philippine and Vietnamese waters every day of the year, it all but guarantees tensions remain high and run-ins with those neighbors a regular occurrence,” said Greg Poling, head of the Southeast Asia program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Tensions between China and other claimants in the South China Sea— the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei—have been rising for years as Beijing invested more in naval and coast guard ships to enforce its claims.

Will China’s territorial grab in South China Sea ever end?

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently said the US is building a more lethal force posture in the Indo-Pacific as part of efforts to make sure China doesn’t dominate the region. China is “the only country with both the will and, increasingly, the power to reshape its region and the international order to suit its authoritarian preferences,” he said on December 3. “So let me be clear—we’re not going to let that happen.”


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