Beijing has increased its naval presence in the South China Sea, fueling regional tensions. The islands of the South China Sea have been disputed between China and other Southeast Asian states since Vietnam’s 2009 reclamation of occupied islands due to overlapping claims of sovereignty.
In 2013, Beijing began asserting its claims to 90 percent of the South China Sea by fortifying artificial islands in contested waters and continues reinforcing these outposts by increasing its maritime presence. According to The New York Times, this strategy “effectively [defies] the other countries to expel them.”
This is a notable coercion tactic employed by Beijing to intimidate competing nations. Many Southeast Asian states laying claim to territories in the South China Sea have a level of economic dependency on China, which complicates potential responses.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative noted that over 200 Chinese fishing vessels have marshaled in Whitstun Reef in the past several weeks, a territory also claimed by the Philippines within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). While it remains unclear whether or not these vessels are part of a state-backed militia, their presence has raised concerns over the growing presence of Chinese ships in contested areas. The Associated Press reports that aerial and maritime patrols carried out by the Philippines uncovered 44 Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun Reef, while more than 200 others were dispersed between five other areas in the Spratly group of islands. As diplomatic protests over Beijing’s activities continue to be ignored, the Philippines has demanded the outright removal of ships in the area.
Taiwan also recently issued a threat to shoot down Chinese drones spotted circling the Pratas Islands controlled by Taipei, according to Reuters. Taiwan also said that China has drilled deep in the South China Sea to retrieve sediment core from the seabed in an attempt to explore natural gas hydrate resources, though it is unclear exactly where the drilling took place.
In 2016, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled that China’s expansive claims to the territories in the South China Sea had no legal basis. However, it did not say whose claims were legitimate, The New York Times continues. This makes for difficult mitigation of the maritime disputes and gives leeway for China’s continued claims.
Historically, the South China Sea dispute has been a catalyst for tension in Southeast Asia and abroad because of the strategic advantage afforded to China if their claims are recognized as legitimate. The rise of China is often perceived as a direct threat to the primacy of the United States in an increasingly multipolar world. As such, Al Jazeera reports that U.S. and Philippine national security advisors have agreed to continue close coordination in responding to unfolding challenges in the South China Sea. In a statement released by the U.S. Navy Press Office, the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group entered the South China Sea on April 4 to conduct routine operations for the second time during its 2021 deployment. This time, the operation is due to carry out maritime strike exercises, anti-submarine operations, and rotary wing flight operations, according to The Defense Post.
Photo courtesy of Asi Times (Flickr)