May 18, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Deeper Implications of the China-Philippines Dispute in the South China Sea


As of mid-May 2012, the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Philippines remain at a standoff in their long-time dispute over sovereignty and fishing rights to Scarborough Shoal. This group of small, remote islands, rocks and reefs — known in China as Huangyan Island and to the Philippines as Panatag Shoal — lies approximately 135 miles (217 kilometers) west of the Luzon, the largest island in the Philippine archipelago. Although it is located well within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone claimed by the Philippines, China also claims the shoal, rich in fishing stocks, as part of its much more comprehensive claims to territories within the South China Sea.  

While the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines has been simmering for decades, current tensions began to heat up in early April 2012 over allegations of illegal fishing by Chinese fishermen, leading to a confrontation between the Chinese fishing vessels, Chinese Maritime Surveillance Force ships, and the Philippine Navy. Since then, the shoal has been at the center of a series of escalating chest-thumping displays between the two governments, including naval deployments and withdrawals, suspension of diplomatic dialogues and tourism programs, threats of economic sanctions, and calls by the more strident voices on each side – particularly among the increasingly vocal netizen communities – to stand firm and perhaps even contemplate military action.  


Leaders Seek Calmer Waters

Cooler heads in both capitals are also weighing in. At a regularly scheduled news conference on May 15, a PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the Chinese government still preferred a diplomatic solution to the dispute, while on May 17, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III named two prominent Philippine citizens as "special envoys" to China to promote friendly exchanges. Nevertheless, escalatory rhetoric and actions continue. In mid-May, Beijing announced a two and one-half month fishing ban in much of the South China Sea (including the territory around Scarborough Shoal claimed by the Philippines), ostensibly to replenish fishing stocks. For its part, Manilla responded by announcing its own two-month fishing ban around the shoal, apparently unwilling to leave unchallenged China's authority to unilaterally declare such a ban.  

It is difficult to know how much China's impending, once-in-a-decade leadership change in the Fall of 2012 may be either affecting — or affected by — the China-Philippines conflict. Chinese leaders have been known to manipulate international tensions for domestic political purposes, as in several cases involving tensions with Japan. But times of political transition in China often have reduced the scope for action by individual leaders, even creating a paralysis in decision-making, as was the case in the outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory System), which occurred during the 2002 leadership transition. At the least, China's impending leadership transition remains a potential, and difficult-to-predict, factor in the Scarborough Shoal dispute.


Broader Implications

China's current dispute with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal highlights some of the inherent dangers posed by China's expansive claims in the South China Sea and its growing military capacity to defend those claims. While a decade ago, Chinese leaders were willing to cooperate with regional governments over South China Sea matters — signing with ASEAN, for instance, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in November 2002 — the current conflict over Scarborough Shoal is an indication that Beijing is becoming more comfortable challenging America's regional allies. In May, for example, Chinese defense officials criticized the U.S.-Australia defense alliance, calling it a relic of the Cold War and saying that the time for such alliances is over.

Such statements, when considered with the current China-Philippine confrontation, suggest that the Chinese government is at least contemplating a three-faceted regional strategy: exerting a more muscular approach in asserting regional territorial claims; developing a greater capacity to deploy naval and other assets in asserting those claims; and implementing an anti-access strategy to impede or deny U.S. intervention in the region and create conflicts of interest for its allies.  

The China-Philippine conflict over Scarborough Shoal is more evidence that, as China's global interests expand and its capacity grows, the pressure on Beijing to intervene on its own behalf around the world is likely to increase. Thus, even absent a Taiwan scenario, the United States should be increasingly prepared to encounter — and respond to — Chinese military and civilian maritime vessels seeking to defend what China perceives as its interests in the region. But China's more assertive approach over Scarborough Shoal also reduces the credibility of its "win-win" approach to bilateral issues, potentially enhancing the importance of the U.S. role in the Pacific, especially in the eyes of countries that are increasingly wary of China's continued evolution into a regional hegemon with global ambitions.

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