The South China Sea Dispute: Chinese Fleets Alarm The Philippines

On the 7th of March, a large Chinese fleet has been spotted in the Philippines maritime territory of the South China Sea. The 220 Chinese fishing boats were moored on to the shore at Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines. This is the latest in a series of attempts by China to reaffirm its Nine-Dash Line claim over parts of the Western Philippine Sea, through increased military presence. The Philippine government has expressed great concern over the fishing boats, stating that they are not simply fishing boats that have mistakenly passed into the territory, but rather are part of China’s maritime militia tactics.

The Defence Minister of the Philippines, Delfin Negrillo Lorenzana, has called upon China to ‘’stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats’’ and to stop ‘’violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory’’.

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea has also raised doubts about the fleet’s activities, stating that ‘’Despite clear weather at the time, the Chinese vessels massed at the reef showed no actual fishing activities and had their full white lights turned on during night-time’’.

In retaliation to the territorial infringement, Philippines Marine Major General Edgard Arevalo stated that the Philippines’ military ‘’will not renege’’ from their commitment to ‘’protect and defend’’ the Philippines’ ‘’maritime interest within the bounds of the law’’.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei have long contested China’s territorial claims of the South China Sea.  The Nine-Dash Line is a claim put forward by both China and Taiwan, stating that a large portion of the South China Sea belongs to them, including parts of the West Philippine Sea. The Philippine’s main territorial claims revolve around the Spratly Islands area of the South China Sea. The Philippines’s argument for its claims relies on the close geographical proximity of these areas, with them being 100 km away from the Philippines and 500 km away from China.

With all countries trespassing and fishing without any issues over the past centuries, this has only become a territorial concern in 2012, when China and the Philippines engaged in a month-long maritime standoff in the disputed area of the Spratly Islands. The standoff started with a sudden increase of the Chinese maritime military in the area, an action taken by China to affirm their Nine-Dash Line Claim. The standoff concluded after international intervention, with both sides agreeing to withdraw, however, China has since failed to do so.

As a result, in 2013, the Philippines has taken China to international court through a UN tribunal under the UN Convention of the Laws of the Sea, in order to formally challenge the Nine-Dash Line claim over the Western Philippine Sea. The trial has resulted in the tribunal backing the Philippines in its territorial claims and stating that China has indeed violated its sovereign rights. However, China has refused to recognize the ruling and has called it ‘’ill-founded’’.

Tensions between Beijing and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have been growing and the alliances have been shifting constantly ever since Duterte has come to power. However, with the recent threats in the South China Sea, it seems Duterte has decided to side with the US rather than China, stating that if attacked, the Philippines will ask the US for help.

In order to avoid any further military standoffs between the Philippines and China, the UN and the Biden administration need to reinforce and openly show support for the 2016 ruling disregarding China’s territorial claims.

Philippine President Duterte should join the US in its mission to stop trade with dozens of Chinese firms shown to be closely related to the Chinese Government Party and end the long-standing confusion on US-Philippines relations.

Timea Putnoki