By Nicholas Clement
May 10 – The South China Sea (SCS) continues to act as a regional flashpoint in the Asia Pacific, recently exemplified by the ongoing naval standoff between China and the Philippines. The current standoff began at the beginning of April when the Filipino navy intercepted Chinese fishing vessels in Scarborough Shoal, who they claimed were illegally operating inside of its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Before the fishermen were arrested, however, China sent vessels from its maritime surveillance unit who placed themselves between the Filipino navy and Chinese fishing vessels – thus starting the standoff.
Scarborough Shoal is an especially troublesome region for China and the Philippines, as unlike other locations within the SCS (such as the Spratly Islands), only they have made claims. Territorial disputes have been a defining point of the SCS for many years now, with China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all having asserted their claims. China makes claim to sovereignty over almost three-fourths of the SCS (including Scarborough Shoal) based on historic rights, infamously using a “nine-dotted line” to mark its claim. The Philippines makes its claim based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which places Scarborough Shoal within its EEZ.
What is important to remember is that the SCS is not only important to China or the Philippines as an extension of its national territory, but also due to its potential as a vast source of natural resources. It has been estimated that the SCS may contain anywhere between 1 to over 17 billion tons of crude oil. Additionally, access to natural gas deposits, fishing zones, as well as its importance as a major shipping lane should not be overlooked. The current standoff is simply another manifestation of the competition to control access to strategically important areas of the SCS.
The ongoing conflict recently intensified when China accused the Philippines of “continuous provocation,” and warned that it is prepared to act against any escalation. Given that there have been numerous military clashes in the past 40 years in the SCS, it is not unfathomable to speculate that this current standoff could escalate into direct conflict. It is, however, unlikely.
Such disputes in the SCS commonly occur, even if the Filipino media has labelled the event a “rare” provocation from China. If such an event were to occur, the Philippines will likely be outmatched by China. They thus have to rely on their ally, the United States, to balance China’s territorial aggression. It is no coincidence that this event occurred only a week before scheduled war-games with the United States. The United States, however, has been hesitant to fully insert itself into the standoff. It understands that such skirmishes in the SCS are inevitable, and that unnecessarily provoking China would be a political and economic blunder. China is also aware of the downfalls of U.S. involvement, demonstrating savvy diplomacy by not dispatching any of their warships (relying instead on maritime surveillance vessels).
Ultimately what this means is that the situation will likely return to the status-quo. China will still stake its claim over the SCS, but will still go unrecognised by the other claimants. Meanwhile, smaller states such as the Philippines will have to rely on powerful external actors, such as the United States, and a unified ASEAN stance to balance against China’s assertiveness. U.S. President Obama’s recent pivot towards the Asia Pacific may disrupt this status-quo, and China’s first deep-water oil drill this past week in the SCS could also result in unexpected consequences if not carefully controlled. The economic disadvantages of a prolonged standoff, and the resulting public backlash, should also not be overlooked as a determining factor of the standoff. What remains clear, however, is that until all countries involved are able to come to an agreement about the future of the South China Sea, geopolitics will continue to dominate the region.