China, Philippines dispute raises tensions in South China Sea

With tensions between China and its neighbors over the South China Sea already high, any disagreement runs the risk of becoming militarized.

Courtesy of Philippine Army/Reuters
This photo shows two Chinese surveillance ships which sailed between a Philippines warship and eight Chinese fishing boats to prevent the arrest of any fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal, a small group of rocky formations whose sovereignty is contested by the Philippines and China, in the South China Sea, about 124 nautical miles off the main island of Luzon on April 10.

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The highly-disputed South China Sea is once again the site of a diplomatic standoff between two East Asian countries, with both the Philippines and China unwilling to back down in a fishing dispute that risks becoming much more.

Two Chinese ships have blocked a Philippine naval ship from arresting Chinese fisherman for fishing in waters that the Philippines considers to be within its "exclusive economic zone." China has ordered the Philippine naval ship to leave, insisting that it has sovereignty of the area, while the Philippines refutes this.

Voice of America reports that the dispute is "the most dangerous confrontation between the two countries in recent years" and comes after both countries said they were seeking rapprochement. 

The Philippine foreign ministry says the Chinese fishing boats were first noticed Sunday by Manila's flagship naval vessel, the U.S.-built Gregorio del Pilar

Manila says the two Chinese surveillance ships on Tuesday positioned themselves between the warship and the Chinese fishing boats, "preventing the arrest of the erring fishermen."

The Chinese Embassy statement says the fishing boats were simply taking shelter near the island due to inclement weather. It said the two surveillance ships were taking action to safeguard "Chinese national maritime interests and rights."

A Philippine inspection of the Chinese fishing boats revealed illegally harvested coral, clams, and live sharks, according to the Philippine government, Associated Press reports. 

The contested area, known outside of the Philippines and China as Scarborough Shoal, is 143 miles from the Philippines island of Luzon, according to Agence France-Presse (see map). But China, which calls the area Huangyan Island, claims sovereignty over the entirety of the South China Sea, including areas close to the shores of other sovereign countries – and hundreds of miles away from its own territory. Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of the sea.

AP reports that an unnamed Philippine navy official said that additional naval ships were being dispatched to the Scarborough Shoal, or Panatag, as it is known in the Philippines. Meanwhile, the Philippines said it had agreed with China to resolve the dispute "diplomatically," but neither country backed down. Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario said he told China's ambassador "if the Philippines is challenged, we are prepared to secure our sovereignty."

China has been regularly criticized for its aggressive efforts to stake a claim over the entirety of the South China Sea, which is a critical shipping conduit for countries in the region and contains oil and gas deposits and fishing grounds. China was accused last year of firing "warning shots" at Filipino fisherman and "harassing" a ship that was exploring the area's underwater oil deposits, AFP reports.

Concerns about China's encroachment were high enough last year for the Philippines to request help from the US in building up its maritime defenses. The US provided the country with what is now its biggest, newest ship – the Gregorio del Pilar – which was the Philippine ship involved in today's spat with China, according to AFP.

Philippines President Benigno Aquino III, elected in 2010, has taken a firmer stand against China's territorial encroachment than his predecessor and has also reached out to the US, both of which have riled China, The Wall Street Journal reports. The US has emphatically stated that the South China Sea must remain open to navigation and has been blatant in its support for other countries in the region, for example running joint military drills with the Philippines.

Already this week, a hawkish Chinese general has warned that the Philippines is facing its "last chance" to peacefully resolve sovereignty disputes over the South China Sea. Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, writing in the Global Times newspaper, accused the Philippines of hijacking a recent Southeast Asian summit in order to further pressure China over the South China Sea, and warned that Manila's alleged provocations would fail.

"The biggest miscalculation of the Philippines is that it has misestimated the strength and willpower of China to defends its territorial integrity," Gen. Luo wrote.

China and the Philippines are not the only countries locked in an ongoing territorial dispute. The Spratly Islands – claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan – have commanded international attention for the high tensions they have spawned. AP reports that the islands have "long been feared" as the next locus of fighting in the region. The Philippines and Vietnam recently announced they would hold football and basketball matches on some of the disputed Spratly Islands as part of a recent agreement between Hanoi and Manila to take "confidence-building" steps.

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