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Leaning on US, Philippines boldly pushes back on China in sea dispute

The Philippines, a normally quiet claimant in South China Sea disputes, is mounting unusually bold resistance against China as it edges in on Manila’s maritime interests.

By Correspondent / April 26, 2012

Filipino Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario updates the media on developments in the Scarborough Shoal territorial standoff between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea during a press conference Thursday, April 26, in Pasay City, Philippines.

Pat Roque/AP

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Taipei,Taiwan; and Manila, Philippines

The Philippines accused China today of violating a 2002 nonaggression pact when Chinese government ships prevented Filipino authorities from arresting Chinese fishermen whom the Philippines say were illegally encroaching.

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It is the latest in a series of unusually bold moves by the Philippines in its mounting multilayered resistance against China as it edges in on Manila’s maritime interests. Philippine officials have grilled the Chinese ambassador, proposed an elaborate dispute-resolution plan to its Southeast Asian neighbors, and bought two former US coast guard ships to help its navy to hold off China.

“The Philippines has come to the conclusion over the past couple of years that China is growing more determined to assert its claims,” says Scott Harold, associate political scientist with The RAND Corp., a US-based policy research institution. “As China has grown more determined to assert its claims, the Philippines has moved to rebuild its defense cooperative relations with the United States,” a staunch ally.

Manila’s campaign hit high gear this month after Chinese ships blocked Philippine attempts to arrest the crews of eight Chinese fishing boats near Scarborough Shoal, a coral reef 230 kilometers (143 miles) west of the main Philippine island of Luzon. But its vigilance had been rising since 2009 as resource-hungry China crept closer.

'Not just another spat'

Manila’s response to China under President Benigno Aquino III, seen as stronger than his predecessors on foreign policy, may not be just another two-way spat over the vast ocean area that has been a historical source of multilateral disputes.

It could pit China against the US, which wants to keep its historic military and economic hold on Asia, and add pressure on Beijing to enter negotiations, during which analysts say it would be humiliated by smaller countries with weaker militaries but more clearly defined claims to the sea – and stronger US backing.

“There is a complex dynamic in the South China Sea with all the actors acting and reacting to one another,” says Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow with the US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The United States, former colonizer of the Philippines and a strong modern-day ally, posted 4,500 personnel to a Philippine island along the South China Sea for annual war games on April 14. Manila is also planning to buy a squadron of F-16 fighter jets from the US, Philippine media have reported.

On Wednesday China warned the Philippines not to “internationalize” the issue and force other countries to take sides.

Before 2010 the Philippines would verbally remind countries of its claim to the 220 barely populated islets across the sea, which is rich in fisheries, prime shipping lanes, and possible undersea reserves of oil or natural gas.

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