Political and Military Flexing in the South China Sea

October 2012



China and ASEAN members (primarily the Philippines) continue to struggle in asserting their claim over disputed islands and waters in the South China Sea.


Over the past month, China has continued to maintain its sovereign right to the whole of the South China Sea.  After a two-month-long standoff between Chinese and Philippine fishing and Coast Guard vessels in Scarborough Shoal, both sides backed off temporarily.  China proceeded to announce the establishment of Sansha City, which would govern the Spratlys, the Paracels and the Macclesfield Bank.  Various parts of this island group are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan.  The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) established a small garrison in the city to protect China’s claims.  China also boosted its patrols of disputed waters with new, technologically advanced vessels, with plans to deploy 36 of these new vessels by 2013.  Also, PLA leaders plan to establish an aircraft monitoring system designed to identify hostile aircraft, and shoot them down if necessary.

Still, China maintains that it wants to resolve the conflict peacefully, without any military intervention.  Chinese leadership has continually stated that they are willing to resolve the conflict with each country.  Inviting an armed conflict in the sea would risk the $5 trillion in ship trade that passes through the sea annually.  China also continues to cooperate with ASEAN members, such as Cambodia and Indonesia, through investing in infrastructure and even military projects.

The Philippines, meanwhile, has continued to strengthen its position in the region.  President Benigno Aquino stated his firm position, saying “It’s not right to give away what is rightfully ours.”  Despite his unyielding position, Aquino has also stated that he wants a calm discussion with China and the other involved countries to resolve the situation.  In an attempt to compete with China’s show of military and naval prowess, the Philippines began a $1.8 billion project to overhaul its military capabilities.  This project includes new boats, planes, helicopters, equipment and ammunition to bolster its modest forces.  Much of the funding and equipment came from the United States, which has been increasing military cooperation with its allies in the region.

The United States remains mostly neutral, despite its moves to draw closer ties with Southeast Asian countries.  When China announced the city and garrison in Sansha, the US State Department released a statement saying it would monitor the situation, and that China’s actions were “further escalating tensions.”  The US considers China’s desire for “bilateral” discussions (vs. “multilateral”) a plan to divide and conquer in the Sea.  China would benefit more from talks with each country individually, versus with the united block of ASEAN.  Chinese media told the US to “shut up” and to stop meddling in China’s affairs over its sovereign territory.  Additionally, the US has plans to expand its missile defenses in the region.  The Pentagon is discussing plans for radar instillations in Japan and eventually in Southeast Asia.  Officials insist that the systems are defense measures against North Korean missiles.

Possibly the most important aspect of the conflict in the South China Sea is the suspected stores of oil and gas deposits beneath the waters.  Both China and the Philippines have offered blocks of the disputed sea to foreign energy companies.  Some of the contracts include overlapping regions claimed by both countries.  The recent discovery of these potential oil and gas resources is likely the strongest driver for the conflict between China and Southeast Asian countries.  Many Asian economies are continually expanding, increasing each countries need for energy.



[+] China is unlikely to resort to military action against its rivals.  Such actions would threaten the lucrative trade that passes through the region, as well as hurt relations with Western powers.

[-] China’s energy needs are so great that the country is unlikely to relinquish any part of the resource rich sea, and competitors are going to face the same problems as they continue to grow.

[-] Though all sides are continually posturing for power over various islands, no side is likely to begin an armed conflict because the stakes are too high.  Still, the conflict is unlikely to be resolved any time soon, especially as ASEAN members draw closer together.

[+] The US is unlikely to get involved in a serious military conflict because of political and economic pressures.  The US moves to bolster relations with ASEAN members are acting more as a deterrent for China taking more serious measures to control the South China Sea, rather than a declaration of aggression against China.

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