Territorial Disputes Cause Increased Military Presence In South China Sea

There has been an increase in the number of Chinese ships in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea throughout 2023. According to the Straits Times, the Philippine military reported seeing at least 47 ships on July 7th, compared to only 12 in February. A total of six countries, including China, the Philippines, claim to control parts of the South China Sea because the area has large fisheries and oil reserves. The countries with claims in the South China Sea have built military bases and artificial islands in the Sea, arguing that this should allow them to increase their EEZ, giving them access to resources in the Sea.

The Lowy Institute reported China claims a number of islands in the South China Sea because the islands were discovered by Chinese people in the 2nd Century B.C., during the time of the Han Dynasty. However, most of the  islands in the South China Sea were not claimed until 1947 when China issued a map called the “nine-dash line,” which showed the islands as part of China. One of the islands claimed by China is Scarborough Shoal, which is off the coast of the Philippines. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration supported the Philippines controlling the island since it is in the Philippines’ EEZ, which the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea allows to extend 200 miles from the coast. Additionally, the Court ruled the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by all six countries, are not large enough to have their own EEZ. However, China has opposed the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision, and has continued to increase its military activity in the region.

Despite China’s opposition to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was supportive of improving relations with China, because China is an important trading partner of the Philippines. Although China still claimed the Scarborough Shoal, it agreed to allow Filipinos to fish at the island. However, relations between the Philippines and China did not improve for long, as the Chinese Coast Guard eventually sent boats to Scarborough Shoal, preventing most fishers from visiting the island.

In 2022, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was elected President of the Philippines, and supported having better relations with the U.S. and Japan, instead of China. Since 2014, U.S. troops have been allowed to stay at Philippine military bases as part of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. After the Agreement was made, U.S. troops were allowed to stay at four bases. Al Jazeera reported the Agreement was changed after Marcos became President, and U.S. troops can now stay at five additional military bases. Also, Japanese troops have been allowed to participate in military training exercises with troops from the Philippines and the U.S. The Philippines has hoped the increase in U.S. and Japanese troops could cause China to stop claiming islands in the Philippines’ EEZ.  However,  the presence of the U.S. and Japan will likely increase conflict with China. CNN reported Mao Ning, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said the U.S. had “escalated tension in the region, and endangered regional peace and security.”

In May and June 2023, the Philippine Coast Guard installed five buoys near the Irving and Whitsun Reefs, which are in the Philippines’ EEZ, but are claimed by China. Although the coast guard has said the buoys were supposed to help ships navigate through the Sea, Voice of America reported the main reason the Philippines placed the buoys was to assert sovereignty over the reefs. The placement of the buoys caused the number of Chinese ships in the South China Sea to increase, and China has also installed buoys near the reefs, hoping to deter the Philippines from claiming the reefs. This is evidence that China is unlikely to end its claims to islands in the Philippines’ EEZ, even if the Philippines has tried to assert its control over the islands, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration has supported the Philippines controlling the islands.

The main reason countries have claimed parts of the South China Sea is due to the large amount of resources in the Sea. It is possible there would be fewer conflicts in the region if all the countries claiming parts of the South China Sea were given access to the Sea’s resources. This could occur if all the countries in the region agreed to co-manage and share fisheries and oil reserves in the South China Sea.

E-International Relations reported that if fisheries were co-managed, the fisheries would not be owned by one country, but instead would be owned by each country bordering the Sea. This could allow fishermen from different countries to fish near the same islands and reefs. If fishermen could fish in any part of the sea, it would make it easier for all countries in the region to export fish, and could cause countries to not claim islands with large fisheries. Once the countries do not claim islands in the Sea, it would become easier for the countries to solve territorial disputes. Although it might be difficult for all the countries to agree to co-manage fisheries, it is possible that concerns about declining fish stocks could increase support for the co-management of fisheries. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reported that co-management of fisheries would make it easier for countries bordering the Sea to coordinate research to determine where overfishing occurred.  Once it is known where fish stocks have declined, bans on fishing could be made in certain areas of Sea, and fish could be reintroduced so the fish stocks would eventually increase. If fishing near an island or reef increases, the fisheries will need to be monitored to make sure that fish stocks are not declining.

In addition to fisheries, it is possible oil reserves in the South China Sea could also be co-managed.  One area of the Sea with large oil reserves is the Reed Bank, which claimed by China and The Philippines. The International Crisis Group reported oil companies from the two countries have considered jointly exploring the Reed Bank. The companies, along with the Philippine government, could receive money from any oil discovered near the Bank. However, it is uncertain whether this will occur as the Supreme Court of the Philippines has opposed wholly foreign-owned companies searching for oil in the Philippines’ EEZ. Despite the Supreme Court’s decision, Radio Free Asia reported that China and the Philippines are still discussing ways to jointly explore for oil, making it possible the countries could create an agreement that will not be opposed by the Supreme Court.  If this occurred, it is possible China would not claim the islands due to receiving some money from the discovery of oil.

The co-management of resources would likely decrease conflict, and make it easier to end territorial  disputes in the South China Sea. However, it is possible disputes will still occur between countries in the region. Although the Permanent Court of Arbitration could become involved in disputes, it is unlikely it would be effective in resolving disputes, as the Court has not been able to stop China from claiming islands in the Philippines’ EEZ. Because of this, there needs to be a better way to end disputes between countries bordering the Sea. Since 2002, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (A.S.E.A.N.), which includes Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, have discussed creating a code of conduct to resolve disputes, and support freedom of navigation in the Sea. The Associated Press reported China is supportive of a code of conduct, and might make an agreement with A.S.E.A.N. by 2026. According to Benar News, one reason China has opposed the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling is because it does not want Courts from outside of the region to make decisions about territorial disputes in the South China Sea.  However, it is more likely China will be supportive of a code of conduct since it will be made by countries bordering the South China Sea.

Territorial disputes between China, the Philippines, and other countries bordering the South China Sea have existed for a long time. It is unlikely the increased presence of U.S. and Japanese troops, or the placement of buoys, will cause China to end its claims in the Philippine’s EEZ. Although it might be difficult for countries bordering the South China Sea to agree to co-manage resources, the idea should be considered because disputes have mostly been caused by countries in the region wanting to access fisheries and oil reserves. If the countries in the region can share resources, and create a code of conduct, it is possible the countries will be able to solve their territorial disputes.


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