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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.

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Its navy, with just 120 vessels, blushes against China’s navy, which has some 976 ships. And since the 1980s the overall weaker Philippine military has focused more on Muslim insurgents at home than on threats from overseas.

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Then China started closing in. 

China's claim

China claims the whole sea that extends from Singapore to Taiwan. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam vie with China for claims to all or part of the sea area of 3.5 million square kilometers (1.4 million square miles).

Beijing says the Chinese navy was active in the South China Sea during the Han and Ming Dynasties hundreds of years ago. Manila cites international laws and treaties to back its claims. Vietnam was the last country to square off against China, last year using an armed oil exploration vessel to chase off Chinese fishing boats.

“A military clash in the South China Sea … may be more likely between China and Vietnam because Vietnam has more firepower, but the Philippines seems increasingly willing to stand up to China,” Ms. Glaser says.

China’s rift with the Philippines started in 2009, when the Chinese held naval exercises in the sea using “vintage World War II ships,” says Lin Chong-pin, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

“So the Philippines decided to go toward the US,” Mr. Lin says. “Washington took that as an opportunity to come back to East Asia with more deployment.”

Nervous 

In 2010, the Philippines grew nervous about the international search for natural gas in the South China Sea region of Reed Bank, just 148 kilometers from the large Philippine island of Palawan. Chinese vessels have roamed the area recently as Manila prepares to award 15 exploration contracts, including one due to start this year, according to a report by the US-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations.

People in Palawan are “worried that a war could break out,” one resort owner on the tourism-intensive island says. China reportedly withdrew two law enforcement ships from the disputed shoal this week. But China has 1.3 billion people to feed, Mr. Harold notes, and “fishing stocks in its coastal waters have been depleted, which is why you’re seeing Chinese fishermen ranging farther afield into waters claimed by South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines,” he says.

On Tuesday, Mr. Aquino warned that China’s territorial claims were encroaching on the Philippines. His government proposed last year that Southeast Asian nations – excluding China – pursue joint economic development of the sea area. This month it warned against underestimating quiet claimants. 

“There is no indication that the international community have acquiesced to China's so-called historical claim,” the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. “Mere silence by other states to one’s claim is not acquiescence under international law.”

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