Last month China prevented two Philippine boats from reaching the Second Thomas Shoal, claiming that Manila was trying to build structures on the reef in an attempt to fortify its claim. In 1999, the Philippine navy ship BRP Sierra Madre - a former U.S. tank landing vessel – ran aground the shoal and has been since stationed there ever since with a handful of Filipino marines to enforce the Philippines’ claim to the reef. The shoal lies within Manila’s 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) but is also claimed by Beijing. The presence of the Sierra Madre and the soldiers aboard is part of Manila’s larger strategy in the South China Sea to protect its contested maritime territories.
While the Scarborough Shoal incident drew international attention in 2012, the Second Thomas Shoal is the new flashpoint in the South China Sea (SCS). The region is becoming a maritime hotspot with Beijing engaging in territorial disputes with four ASEAN nations. Beijing claims most of the sea as its territory with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also having overlapping claims in the area. China is the largest party and has been engaged in growing provocations, which are being vehemently opposed by the Philippines and Vietnam – who are seeking the presence of external actors to counter Beijing.
China is becoming increasingly assertive in its claims and its recent move to block Philippine boats carrying supplies to their troops stationed in the Second Thomas Shoal is indicative of this trend. Supporting Manila in its protests, Washington said that the blockade is a “provocative move that raises tensions,” calling for all parties to maintain status quo. With growing international attention to the region and the U.S. rebalance, the Philippines has been increasingly vocal about its ongoing dispute with China. Meanwhile, China’s aggressive and assertive behavior in both the East and South China Sea is hampering Beijing’s relationship with its neighbors.
While Beijing’s assertiveness in the region is not a new phenomenon, its attempt- if any- to occupy the Second Thomas Shoal will have serious consequences for Asia. As noted, Washington has been increasingly vocal in opposing Chinese actions in the region and is likely to extend its support and influence against Chinese attempts to seize the Second Thomas Shoal. This will also create panic and tension amongst the other claimants to the South China Sea, creating mistrust between governments and a greater potential for confrontations in the waters of the South China Sea.
Manila is worried that Beijing will repeat the Scarborough Shoal fiasco all over again, wherein the Philippines withdrew its forces to ease tension while China continued to maintain its vessels in the region, treating the shoal as its territory. However, the scenario is much different this time around as any attempt by China to occupy the Second Thomas Shoal will run up against the Philippine Marines stationed on the Sierra Madre. Thus, Beijing would have to remove the Filipino soldiers either by force or by intimidation as Manila has resolved to fight “up to the last standing soldier.”
Further complicating the situation is China’s adamant refusal to engage with the other claimants to the South China Sea at an international/multilateral forum. In an effort to force China’s hand on the matter, in January 2013 the Philippines approached an international tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) to submit the dispute for resolution. Although Beijing has refused to participate at the tribunal, the Philippines is continuing the process and recently submitted its memorial to the court. China argues that there are no territorial disputes in the South China Sea and all of its claims are legal. Hence, it argues it does not have to participate in any international forum. At the same time, China seeks to appear conciliatory be expressing a willingness to discuss the disputes bilaterally with each party, where Chinese power would be at its greater. The Philippines, on the other hand, does not want to be seated alone against its powerful neighbor and therefore seeks to discuss the issues in multilateral forums.
Even if the UN court rules in favor of Manila, it will not have a binding effect on China. However, it will strengthen the Philippines’ position by grounding it in international law, and putting China in a negative spotlight. This could also set a precedent for other claimants to the South China Sea who would have a renewed incentive to bring their own disputes with China to international arbitrators.
In the meantime, China is unlikely to stop patrolling the waters near the Second Thomas Shoal. While the Philippines air dropped the supplies to its troops the first time around and dodged Chinese vessels the second time, it cannot continue to avoid and escape Beijing’s maritime vessels. Manila will have to continue shipping supplies to the Marines so they can maintain their outpost. Each time the Philippines does so now carries the risk of a miscalculation leading to a conflict between the two countries. The problem however is that a conflict between the two nations won’t be limited to their respective militaries or even the region. The South China Sea is a vital international trade route affecting countless countries around the globe.
While most other nations put forth their concerns regarding freedom of navigation in the area, China is prompt in its response that it will never affect the innocent passage of ships. However it is not just about the passage of trade vessels, the question is about one country controlling very important waters where no military reconnaissance will be allowed. It is in global interest to keep the region free of conflict.
In the face of strong opposition from the Philippines and an assertive China, ASEAN as a community must speak with a single voice in helping to resolve the matter. As four ASEAN countries continue to clash with China over the South China Sea, it is becoming increasingly important for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. While ASEAN is not a silver bullet for solving the various territorial disputes, it definitely has the potential to facilitate dialogue with China. It must seize this opportunity or risk living with the consequences of failing to do so. These consequences will shake the world.
Darshana M. Baruah is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and the Associate Editor of the ORF South China Sea Monitor.