Tensions around the South China Sea reached a new peak this week as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte warned of aggressive confrontation via military “suicide missions”. Duterte’s comments are in response to the mass fleet of Chinese ships seemingly surrounding the Filipino Island Pag-asa. Various islands within the South China Sea are recognised as Philippine territory and thus the arrival of Chinese vessels has been proclaimed as a violation of the country’s sovereignty. Despite this, China has maintained its commitment to operate freely within the Sea, previously rejecting an international arbitration on the illegality of its regional operations.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have been mounting for several years now. As several countries – such as Brunei, Malaysia and China itself – lay claim to islands in the region, the importance of these islands is due to the estimated worth of the oil reserves in the area. According to the Energy Information Administration, over 25% of global maritime crude oil trade is operated in the South China Sea. Therefore, control over the trade route is of economic and political importance.
Realising the severity of the situation, the United States has reaffirmed concern over Beijing’s influence in the region, especially with the creation of artificial military islands controlled by the country. In response to Beijing’s mass movement of its fleet to the Filipino island, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the U.S would be ready to respond in the instance of an “armed attack”. Duterte himself, however, has constantly stressed that the Philippines would be defeated swiftly in the case of any armed conflict with China. Reiterating this, the president stated, “I will not plead or beg, but I am just telling you [to] lay off the Pag-asa because I have soldiers there”. Duterte’s remarks regarding suicide missions, moreover, can arguably be perceived as a ploy to regain what little control and influence the country has in the South China Sea.
From infrastructure projects in Africa, the creation of a modern ‘silk road’, and now with persistent control over the South China Sea, Beijing’s attempts to increase its international influence are becoming increasingly noticeable. The ‘friendly’ relationship that Beijing has with the Philippines, moreover, reflects China’s ability to effectively entice countries to support and accept its decisions and influence. This is clear with the Chinese funded “Build, Build, Build” project in the Philippines, effectively contributing to a $160 billion investment in infrastructure. China also sends arms to aid the country’s fight against terrorism.
Beijing’s manipulative ability to win over countries can be illustrated with the South China Sea Arbitration. Here, the Philippines successfully enacted various submissions over China’s unlawful claim to the entire South China Sea. Despite the arbitration being internationally recognised, China refused to accept and recognise the ruling.
Several countries, including Australia, have advocated cooperation and communication to help resolve the tense situation in one of the world’s most contested areas. Such cooperation is crucial in overcoming the current negativity surrounding differential claims to the Sea. As such, it is important to use the regional assets available to the maritime countries claiming control over the area. One inherent asset is the ability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to bring countries together and facilitate peaceful discussion. Here, countries may realise the vast and indefinite economic benefits of open dialogue and cooperation in the region.
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