By combing through the news, it can be observed that before 2020, sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea mainly occurred in the Paracel Islands, with most conflicts between China and Vietnam. However, the conflicts in the past two years have been more concentrated in the waters of the Nansha Islands, and the objects involved have become China and the Philippines. Relations between China and the Philippines have heated up due to the conflict of these three disputes:
The first is the conflict at the Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal) in the Spratly Islands.The Philippine government maintains that Ren’ai Shoal belongs to the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, while the Chinese government believes that it has indisputable sovereignty and jurisdiction over Scarborough Shoal and its adjacent waters. In 1999, the Philippines used a World War II-era landing ship, the Sierra Madre, stranded on the Renai Shoal as a military base in an attempt to permanently occupy the area, and would regularly rotate troops and transport supplies.
In the past, the Philippines’ supply operations have been harassed by Chinese coast guard ships. At the worst time in 2014, the Philippines had to rely on airdrop supplies. After Duterte stepped down, the situation in the Benevolent Sands has heated up again since 2022. The Chinese coast guard ship accused Philippine personnel of trying to transport large-scale construction materials to strengthen defenses, thereby preventing Philippine warships from replenishing supplies. In August last year, Chinese Coast Guard ships blocked the Renai Shoal guarded by the Philippine Marine Corps, preventing government ships from approaching the guarding troops.
In February this year, the situation further escalated. A Chinese coast guard ship illuminated a Philippine ship with “military-grade laser light” about 20 kilometers away from the Ren’ai Shoal, causing the crew to temporarily lose their sight. In August, a Chinese coast guard ship used water cannon to attack Philippine ships stationed in the Shoal. Renai Ansha supply fleet. It is believed that the conflict between China and the Philippines over the Nansha Islands has directly increased the attention of Southeast Asian countries on China’s assertion of sovereignty on the new version of the map this year.
Second, the deployment of navigation buoys and obstacles in disputed waters for attack and defense.The conflict between China and the Philippines in the disputed waters has extended to the use of sea buoys and obstacles for offense and defense. The former demonstrates sovereignty through maritime traffic buoys: In May this year, the Philippines announced that it would set up national flag navigation buoys in five areas within its claimed exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea to declare its sovereignty over the Nansha Islands. China then counterattacked by deploying three light buoys on three islands and reefs in the Nansha Islands in the South China Sea that have sovereignty disputes with the Philippines (Huoyue Reef, Oxbow Reef and Gaven Reef) to show that “China is the true master of the South China Sea Islands.”
At present, Chinese fishermen have taken away the Philippine buoys under the protection of Chinese Coast Guard ships; the latter exercises control by placing obstacles: China is at the entrance of Huangyan Island (called “Scarborough Shoal” in the Philippines) The installation of a 300-meter-long floating barrier to prevent Filipino fishermen from entering the area has been accused of infringing on the fishing rights of Filipino fishermen. Hu Bo, director of the South China Sea Strategic Situational Awareness Project, a Chinese think tank, pointed out that in the past, Philippine ships were allowed to operate near the Scarborough Shoal, but not the Scarborough Shoal lagoon, because China-Philippine relations were friendly and in good faith during the period of former Philippine President Duterte. The barrier was removed by the Philippine Coast Guard on September 25.
Third, China dispatched a large number of maritime militia ships to stay in the disputed waters.China’s main approach is to deploy a numerically superior maritime militia to form a deterrent force in the disputed waters to prevent Philippine ships from entering the area for fishing or oil exploration operations. Maritime militia first attracted major attention in March 2021. The Philippine government stated that more than 200 Chinese militia ships gathered in the waters of Oxbow Reef and the Freedom Islands (KIG) occupied by the Philippines, which are about 1,300 kilometers away from the Chinese coastline. , these vessels were found not to be engaged in fishing operations.
Recently, the gathering range of these ships has tended to expand. Since the beginning of 2022, many Chinese ships have gathered at Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal, not far from Palawan. In April this year, the Philippines’ coast guard spotted more than 100 Chinese maritime militia vessels, a Chinese naval frigate and two Chinese coast guard vessels in the country’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
So, how do Southeast Asian countries respond to China’s increasingly active power in the South China Sea?
First, it is observed that ASEAN has recently begun to focus on cooperation in overall maritime affairs. First, the first ASEAN Coast Guard Forum (ACF) will be held in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022. ACF cooperates by building dialogue mechanisms and sharing intelligence to respond to maritime threats such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and human trafficking. The second session of the forum was held in Jakarta in June this year. Reporting on patrolling the South China Sea and protecting Rohingya refugees was also a key goal of the ASEAN Coast Guard Forum discussion.
Second, in September this year, ASEAN member states held their first joint exercise (ASEX 23). The 10 ASEAN countries launched a five-day military exercise in Indonesia’s South Natuna Sea. ASEAN has participated in multilateral defense military exercises in the past, but this is the first exercise involving only ASEAN members. Although Indonesia points out that this military exercise focuses on humanitarian rescue and joint maritime patrols, it is a non-combat exercise aimed at increasing mutual trust among member states. However, the time and location of the joint military exercise seems to be ASEAN’s intention to use the joint military exercise to show unity in response to the escalating disputes in the South China Sea.
Secondly, Southeast Asian countries have different attitudes toward China on the South China Sea issue. If there is no territorial sea dispute, Cambodia will strongly avoid being involved in the dispute. The ASEAN military exercise held in September this year was changed because Cambodia refused to participate in the North Natuna naval exercise, which has a sovereignty dispute with China; in Among the countries involved in the dispute, the Philippines and Malaysia have taken a more high-profile stance recently compared to the past. The biggest change in attitude has been in the Philippines: since Marcos Jr. took office as President of the Philippines in 2022, he has changed Duterte’s pro-China attitude and low-key handling of Sino-Philippine maritime disputes. By strengthening military cooperation with the United States, he has high-profilely defended the Philippines’ maritime rights and interests. .
The Malaysian government, which has long maintained a low-key posture in the past, summoned the Chinese ambassador in June and October of that year in response to China’s intrusion into its sea and airspace in 2021, and joined the protest against China’s new map in August this year – Malaysia’s response to the high-profile diplomatic exposure is a major change; Indonesia, as a major archipelagic country, has recently become more and more active in leading maritime defense affairs in Southeast Asia. The ACF mechanism and ASEAN joint military exercises mentioned above are both There are factors driven by Indonesia; Vietnam, which often had conflicts with China in the Xisha waters in the past, has had fewer direct conflicts with China on the sea in recent years.
On the contrary, Vietnam used more diplomatic means during this period, such as issuing diplomatic protests and strengthening relations with the United States. On the other hand, Vietnam is also accelerating its land reclamation activities on the islands and reefs it occupies. Vietnam has added 330 acres (approximately 1.3 square kilometers) of land in the Nansha Islands from December last year to November this year. The scale of such reclamation and island building is second only to China.
In short, the complexity of sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea lies in: First, sovereignty disputes not only involve China and a single Southeast Asian country, but most disputes involve more than two countries, and many even occur between Southeast Asian countries. , it should not be regarded as a conflict between Southeast Asia as a whole and China; secondly, the basis for the sovereignty claims of various countries is different, and they do not necessarily comply with the principles of international law. Some countries even seek rationalization after occupying islands and reefs. In the real international environment, the arbitral tribunal’s ruling is not binding, and there is no regional coordination body. Therefore, the essence of the South China Sea dispute is still the pull between national powers.
Third, U.S. intervention has always been a major factor in increasing the risk of regional conflicts. Some countries in the dispute hope that U.S. military power will appear in the South China Sea to deter China from expanding its power in the region. To this end, the United States also uses “freedom of navigation” under international law as an excuse to challenge China’s exclusive economic zone and territorial waters to exert pressure, thereby increasing the possibility of a conflict. Zhou Bo, a retired senior colonel of the People’s Liberation Army and a senior researcher at the Center for Strategy and Security at Tsinghua University in Beijing, also said,
The risk of conflict between the United States and China in the South China Sea is higher than that in the Taiwan Strait.
Although there has been new progress in the protracted South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations, that is, at the ASEAN-China enlarged foreign ministers meeting in July this year, the two sides revealed that the single consultation text had completed the second reading and agreed that it would be adopted by the autumn of 2026. Complete negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. However, many people (including Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong) are pessimistic about the process and results of the negotiations. In particular, the negotiation work involves a wide range of topics, such as the content covered, how to implement it, whether there is a dispute mediation mechanism, etc., and it is difficult to produce a solution that all parties can Accept the result.
Therefore, some analysts pointed out that some claimant countries only hope to use negotiations as a political cover to take the opportunity to expand and rationalize the islands and reefs they actually occupy. On the contrary, the adoption of the code may also weaken the role of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in South China. The utility of the sea. Tensions in the South China Sea have heated up in recent years, perhaps because the main claimants want to consolidate the islands and reefs they actually occupy before entering into negotiations.