Steadying the Waters: Navigating the Tensions at Second Thomas Shoal

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Steadying the Waters: Navigating the Tensions at Second Thomas Shoal

The current stand-off over the Philippine-occupied shoal is a microcosm of the broader security dilemma in the South China Sea.

Steadying the Waters: Navigating the Tensions at Second Thomas Shoal

Philippine resupply vessel Unaizah May 4, center, is hit by two Chinese coast guard water canons as they tried to enter the Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, in the disputed South China Sea, Tuesday, March 5, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila, File

The recent escalations at the Second Thomas Shoal, a maritime area caught between the sovereignty claims of China and the Philippines, bring to the forefront the longstanding complexities of South China Sea territorial disputes. This focal point of regional contention, lying within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) yet claimed by China as part of its expansive “nine-dash line,” epitomizes the geopolitical struggle over national sovereignty, strategic maritime interests, and the quest for regional dominance.

The Philippines has maintained a physical symbol of its claim since the late 1990s by grounding and actively staffing the BRP Sierra Madre on the shoal. In recent years, China has ramped up its maritime activities, deploying coast guard and maritime militia vessels to assert its sovereignty. This tit-for-tat approach not only highlights the strategic importance of the area, known for its vital shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds, and potential undersea resources but also underscores the complexities of diplomatic engagement in the face of nationalistic fervor.

China’s nuanced strategy, leveraging “gray zone” tactics such as water cannons and lasers, seeks to assert control while avoiding outright military confrontation. This approach, designed to strengthen territorial claims without crossing into overt military conflict, embodies a careful calibration of aggression and restraint. It mirrors China’s broader regional ambitions and the delicate balancing act it must maintain in international relations, especially considering the potential for escalation and the involvement of external powers like the United States, a staunch ally of the Philippines.

The situation at the Second Thomas Shoal serves as a microcosm of the broader security dilemma in the South China Sea. Here, the intersection of historical claims, political will, and the third-country factor – particularly the role of the United States and the evolving international system structure – complicates the path to resolution. The historical roots of the dispute stretch back to post-World War II geopolitics, with the “nine-dash line” reflecting a legacy of territorial assertions complicated by the discovery of valuable resources and strategic maritime routes.

Deng Xiaoping’s strategy in the 1990s for the South China Sea, advocating for “joint development while setting aside disputes,” was a pragmatic approach tailored to the geopolitical and economic context of the time. This approach allowed China and other claimant states, like the Philippines and Vietnam, to pursue economic development opportunities without resolving the contentious issue of sovereignty. The concept suggested that, given the complexity of territorial disputes and the improbability of a quick resolution, it would be beneficial for all parties involved to focus on collaboration in areas like resource exploration and economic development while temporarily shelving sovereignty issues​​.

Deng’s tactics worked for decades primarily due to several factors. Firstly, it provided a peaceful means to explore economic opportunities in the disputed waters, appealing to the claimant countries interested in the region’s potential resources. Secondly, it allowed China to engage with its neighbors diplomatically, fostering better relations while subtly asserting its claims without immediate confrontation​​​​.

However, the dynamics in the South China Sea began to change as China’s naval and military capabilities grew significantly. The transformation of the People’s Liberation Army Navy into a formidable “blue water navy” capable of projecting power far beyond its immediate shores has altered the strategic calculations of all parties involved. This military build-up, including the militarization of various islands in the South China Sea with installations and upgrades for military purposes, showcased China’s increased capacity to enforce its claims, shifting away from the purely diplomatic approach advocated by Deng​​.

This shift reflects not a change in China’s policy toward the South China Sea but an evolution in its ability to assert its claims. During the 1990s, China’s emphasis on joint development and setting aside disputes was not necessarily a compromise but a strategic decision to postpone confrontation until it was in a stronger position to assert its claims. Now, with a more potent naval capability, China’s actions – such as those by its Coast Guard – are seen as exercising administrative control over the territory it considers its own, underlining a consistent policy stance that has become more assertive with its increased power​​​​.

This new reality poses a challenge for ASEAN members and other claimant states, which now face a significantly more formidable China. The regional neighbors, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and others, must navigate a delicate balance between safeguarding their territorial claims and economic interests and engaging with a China that is both a crucial economic partner and a dominant military force in the region​​​​.

The situation underscores the complex interplay of sovereignty, economic interests, and military power in the South China Sea disputes, where diplomatic strategies are continually evolving in response to shifts in regional power dynamics.

The joint development proposal, initially effective when all parties refrained from provocative actions, has been undermined by assertive moves, particularly by China, which has bolstered its presence around Second Thomas Shoal since 2013. Although China did not blockade the BRP Sierra Madre and allowed the resupply of food and water to the personnel stationed there, China has acted proactively to intercept the resupply of construction material to the Philippine ship which was intentionally grounded on the shoal in 1999 to assert Philippine sovereignty, by using water cannons and military-grade lasers against resupply missions​​.

From the Philippine perspective, after losing control of Mischief Reef, the potential loss of Second Thomas Shoal would be not just a loss of territorial sovereignty but also a significant blow to the legitimacy and authority of the current administration. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has underscored the importance of asserting the Philippines’ territorial and fishing rights in the face of China’s maritime claims​​​​. The situation is further complicated by the divisions within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with countries like Vietnam maintaining their claims but also expressing concerns over escalating tensions​​, while other member states show little interest in speaking up about the disputes.

China’s approach to the South China Sea disputes reflects a kind of strategic patience, where it has waited for opportunities to assert its claims more forcefully, facilitated by its enhanced military capabilities. The tension around the Second Thomas Shoal and China’s assertive actions reflect a broader strategy of gradually asserting control over disputed territories without direct conflict, taking calculated risks based on the perceived lack of a coherent response from the United States and divisions between ASEAN and the Philippines​​​​.

The impasse, therefore, stems not just from the territorial disputes themselves but from the vastly differing perceptions of sovereignty, the role of international law, and the balance of power in the region. While joint development was seen as a pragmatic solution to bypass sovereignty issues, the increasing militarization and assertive posturing by China have made it clear that the disputes are not merely about resource exploration but about asserting control and influence over strategic maritime zones. The challenge now is how to navigate these disputes in a manner that avoids escalation into open conflict while addressing the underlying issues of national sovereignty and regional security​​​​​​.

Political will, or the lack thereof, has been a significant barrier to resolving the dispute. While moments of potential conciliation have emerged, such as the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, the enduring reluctance of claimants to negotiate earnestly, driven by domestic pressures and national pride, remains a stumbling block.

The third-country factor introduces an additional layer of complexity. The transition from a Cold War framework to a multipolar world order has seen an increase in external involvement in the South China Sea disputes. The strategic competition between China and the United States, exemplified by freedom of navigation operations, highlights the broader geopolitical contest impacting the disputes. These operations, aimed at challenging China’s expansive maritime claims, underscore the broader geopolitical contest between China and the U.S., further complicating the disputes​​.

Moreover, these disputes have become a flashpoint in the larger competition for influence in Asia, with both regional powers and extra-regional actors like the U.S. taking strategic interests in the outcome. The complexity is heightened by the legal ambiguities of maritime claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the strategic ambiguity maintained by China regarding the extent of its claims within the nine-dash line​​.

In conclusion, the ongoing tensions at the Second Thomas Shoal underscore the need for a multifaceted approach to conflict resolution in the South China Sea. This involves recognizing the historical underpinnings of the dispute, addressing the current lack of political will to engage diplomatically, and navigating the intricacies of third-country involvement. Only through a concerted effort encompassing diplomatic engagement, conflict resolution mechanisms, and respect for international maritime law can stability be achieved in this pivotal region.