The Philippines has summoned China’s ambassador after two more incidents between Chinese and Philippines vessels near Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea last weekend.
Manila says China used water cannons and long-range acoustic devices to disrupt the resupply of Philippines fishermen, then deployed similar tactics against a civilian resupply mission to a small outpost of marines.
For its part, Beijing says the Philippines “gravely violated China’s sovereignty”, and its own response was “professional, restrained, justified and legitimate”.
Why are they fighting over this patch of water?
In 2009, China lodged a map with the UN displaying its now-famous ‘nine-dash line’, claiming “historical rights” to ~90% of the South China Sea.
Various neighbours objected, and the Philippines took the matter to a court in The Hague, which found in 2016 that China’s line had “no legal basis”. China responded by saying it “neither accepts nor recognizes” the court’s ruling.
And despite President Xi’s assurances, he’s continued to build military bases in places like Mischief Reef: 1,110km from China, but widely seen as falling within the 370km exclusive economic zone of the Philippines (240km away).
So the Philippines has sought to assert its rights, and China has responded with:
- Military grade lasers to temporarily blind Philippines crews
- Planting a floating barrier to block Philippines vessels from passing
- Swarming reefs with over 100 vessels, and
- Using water cannons in August, November, and this past weekend.
In response, Manila is now openly questioning the “sincerity of [China’s] calls for peaceful dialogue”, while President Marcos Jr says China’s actions “have only further steeled our determination to defend and protect our nation’s sovereignty”.
China’s President Xi Jinping probably has a few objectives driving his strategy in the South China Sea right now. He wants to:
- Expand China’s sense of security by subduing its periphery
- Control maritime trade routes that are key to China’s economy
- Exert control over the sea’s fishing and energy resources, and
- Test US commitment to its allies like the Philippines.
And Xi is pursuing this strategy with:
- ‘Grey-zone’ tactics like water cannons, to avoid crossing the threshold into acts of war, and
- ‘Salami-slicing’ tactics of gradual expansion, to craft an image of restraint while casting responses from others as escalation.
So what are the region’s options here?
The US could potentially declare the waters to fall within its defence treaty with the Philippines, but a similar 2014 move in support of Japan doesn’t seem to have shaped China’s approach.
President Marcos Jr is doubling down on his alliance with the US, while seeking support from friends like Japan and Australia to bolster deterrence.
But the weekend’s events suggest this isn’t having much impact either.
Also worth noting:
- The Chief of Staff of the Philippines military was aboard one of the ships targeted by China’s water cannons over the weekend.