China asserts its control over the South China Sea

August 2012


China increases its military presence in the South China Sea as the Philippines and Vietnam attempt to protect their interests.


In the last week of June, China deployed military patrols in regions of the sea over which it claims to have complete sovereignty.  These patrols were in response to actions taken by the Philippines and Vietnam.  Vietnam passed a law exerting its legal rights to the area of the South China Sea within the 200 nautical mile economic zone.  Philippine leadership has been threatening to return its ships to the disputed Scarborough Shoal, because Chinese vessels have remained there.  The Armed Forces of the Philippines announced it will support and coordinate with the Philippine Coast Guard to ensure the safety of Philippine fishing boats that are to return to the shoal later in July.

The Philippines and Vietnam have also tightened ties with the United States.   President Aquino of the Philippines may request U.S. spy plane access to monitor Chinese activity within Philippine waters.  The Philippines has also offered its military facilities to the U.S. in exchange for more frequent training and more equipment to boost its weak military.  The Philippines insists that it wants to ease tensions with China, but it wants China to act in return by withdrawing its ships.  U.S. and Vietnamese leaders have met to discuss future U.S.-Vietnamese cooperation militarily and economically.

This week, China offered foreign oil companies to bid for development of lots in areas of the sea that overlap with Vietnam’s current contracts.  This sparked fierce protests near the Chinese embassy in Hanoi.  Roughly 200 Vietnamese citizens protested in the capital, without police attempting to stop the event.  “Battle ready” Chinese patrols are now in the vicinity.  The Vietnamese government calls China’s actions illegal and has set up aircraft patrol of the waters looking for illegal activity from China.   China maintains that its actions are legal, and it urged Vietnam not to worsen the tensions.

China insists that it will oppose any military provocation from any party in the South China Sea.  It claims that the whole of the sea is indisputably China’s territory and any military action infringes on its national sovereignty.  These remarks came after a joint naval exercise in Hawaii between the U.S. and 21 other nations.  China was not invited.  China expressed concern over U.S. plans to increase naval activity in the Asia-Pacific.


 [+] Neither the Philippines nor Vietnam have strong military and naval capabilities. The likelihood of either striking first is low.  For now, the situation should remain a battle of words and flexing of military power, unless China is provoked further.

[-] The tensions between China and the Philippines and Vietnam could drag the U.S. into the dispute militarily.  If military conflict were to erupt, the U.S. would have to honor its agreements with the Philippines and Vietnam.  This would damage U.S.-China relations.

[-] As tensions increase, international oil and energy companies may lose opportunities to exploit the resource-rich region.  Existing facilities may be threatened by military conflict, if the situation continues to worsen.  Conflict could also negatively impact the international shipping lanes that pass through the sea.

[+] Vietnam, the Philippines, and other nations with claims on the South China Sea may use the disputes to increase ties with the U.S. to further their economic and military development and shore up their defenses against China’s increasingly powerful presence in the region.


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