The South China Sea Dispute: A Diplomatic Showdown
With rising tensions in the South China Sea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries are finding it difficult to decide what to do next. The Philippines has recently chosen to strike a deal with China in order to gain resources in the Scarborough Shoal. Neighboring countries are not so willing to bargain with China; Indonesia has recently requested for Australian aid in their patrols of the waters. Strangely, the United States has been silent on the issue, and the world is wondering what they plan to do.
US warships have been spotted patrolling the area. While China deems this act as “illegal” and “intentionally provocative,” the US continues its patrols and defends them as their right to navigation protected under international law. They continue to take a neutral stance and do not wish to take a side with any claimant of the islands. However, their naval patrols in the area make one wonder what stake they have in the issue. It may be that they are simply keeping China’s power in check, or they are waiting for the right time to strike a deal with one of the ASEAN claimants; they may want a share of the natural resources in the area, or set up a geographically advantageous military base there. Whatever their reasons may be, China and the US have been displaying their power in the disputed area.
China has stationed its ships around the Scarborough Shoal, the Spratly Islands, and the Paracel Islands in order to show and maintain their claims on the territories. The US continues to show its military strength by patrolling their warships around the area—making sure to keep more than 12 nautical miles from the baseline to follow the parameters set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Both sides have displayed their military power in the South China Sea, but the showdown is also about their diplomatic abilities. The US has stated that they want a peaceful and diplomatic settlement of the issue, as stated by Secretary of State, John Kerry. However, the US may have experienced a diplomatic loss with the deal that Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has struck with China. The Philippines and the US have a long-standing military alliance, and they allow American military exercises to be conducted each year on its shores. Not only has President Duterte wanted to halt of the military exercises and the joint patrols of the South China Sea, he also wishes to side with China. The previously US-friendly and dependent Philippines was somehow won over by the country that the Hague ruled has no legal basis for its operations in the area. This means that China has successfully wedged itself between the relationship of the Philippines and the US. If they successfully make the Philippines an ally and encompass into its sphere of influence against the US, China would gain more control in the area, for their worries of the American powers would be lessened. Furthermore, while China has let Filipino fishing vessels into the Scarborough Shoal, it has not withdrawn any claims or any of its ships. They still disregard the ruling by The Hague last July, and with the Philippines on their side, it has become more difficult to punish them for their activities because the very country that filed a case against them is now on their side.
China’s actions, however, are not completely self-beneficial. Now that they’ve lifted the barricades in the Scarborough Shoal, Beijing has lost some leverage over Manila. While the Philippines is constantly reminded of China’s military power over them, they cannot simply reinstate the barriers if they have the goal of weakening their diplomatic ties with the US. Furthermore, with Filipino vessels in the area, China can no longer easily dredge the area. Their original goal of building a military airstrip has been put to a halt. China would no longer potentially have a base that is within missile range to Manila. If other ASEAN countries follow suit, China’s goals of militarization might not be achieved easily. With their direct involvement, it is highly unlikely that one of the ASEAN countries would allow China to build a military base so close to home.
The presence of Chinese, American, ASEAN, and potentially Australian warships in the area shows how essential these islands actually are. Gaining control of the islands would be politically, economically, and strategically beneficial. Parties involved are just trying to find diplomatic ways to settle the dispute. However, with China’s persistent claims and lack of support by other more powerful countries, the ASEAN claimants are not going to be able to settle the dispute themselves; not all are inclined to drop US support and deal with China like the Philippines. As more military ships are put in the area and tensions rise, one can only wonder what the future of the area holds: will there be a stronger military response if China becomes bolder with their plans? Will the US continue peaceful patrols, or will they respond with violence if provoked? Will China be successful in militarising the area, or simply use the disputed territories as leverage for other goals? Especially with the Philippines’ unexpected decision, the territorial dispute in the South China Sea remains uncertain.