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A month-long standoff in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines picked up a notch today, with China accusing the Philippines of "continuous provocation" and warning that it is prepared to respond to any escalations.
The dispute is over what is known internationally as the Scarborough Shoal, a cluster of islands in the South China Sea less than 200 miles from the Philippines. The Philippines insists the shoal is within its exclusive economic zone, but China has staked claim to huge swathes of the South China Sea hundreds of miles from its shore, including this one (known in China as Huangyan Island), bringing it into conflict with several countries in the region.
China has painted the Philippine claim to the land as opportunistic, noting that China first staked a claim in 1935, while the Philippines didn't until 1997. In an Op-Ed for China Daily, Li Jenming, a professor at the Center for Southeast Asia Studies, writes that the "exclusive economic zone" claim "lacks legal basis."
China has continuously portrayed the Philippines as the aggressor in the latest standoff, which began in early April when a Philippine naval ship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen found fishing in the waters around the shoal. They were blocked by other Chinese ships accompanying the fishing vessels.
Both Chinese and Philippine ships have been hovering in the area since then, BBC reports, and today China's vice foreign minister called on the Philippines to remove its ships. China has rejected requests to resolve the dispute at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying said today that her country is prepared to respond to any efforts by the Philippines to escalate the situation. The Philippines has sent ships to the disputed area and made "erroneous" comments that have distorted the view of Filipinos and the international community, she said, according to Xinhua.
"However, it is obvious that the Philippine side has not realized that it is making serious mistakes and, instead, is stepping up efforts to escalate tensions," Ms. Fu said. "Therefore it is hard for us to be optimistic about the situation."
Philippine provocations include, according to China Daily, Manila's renaming of the island, bringing the dispute to an international court unilaterally, and the continued presence of Filipino ships in the Scarborough Shoal area.
Although the US has helped the Philippines boost its maritime defenses, most recently by providing the Philippine navy with its largest ship, it appears to be trying to remain out of the dispute.
Aiding the Philippines is part of the US strategy for keeping China's power in the region in check, which the US has framed as an interest in keeping the South China Sea open to international shipping. However, the US has insisted that it will remain neutral in this standoff – a move that pleased Beijing. The China Daily called US neutrality "helpful to stability."
An Op-Ed in China Daily, headlined "Never compromise," praises the way China has "defended its sovereignty" by dispatching ships to the shoal but refusing to open fire, avoiding a military confrontation, and dissects the US role in the standoff.
If the incident escalates into open military conflict, [the Philippines] wants its most powerful ally, the United States, to back it against China. Even if it does not, the Philippines is hoping to gain the support of the international community by portraying itself as a small, bullied country being threatened by China.
Without doubt, if the Philippines gets support from the US and other countries it will take an even tougher approach in the future.
The Philippines has a very good plan, with only one drawback: neither the US nor any of its other allies are its puppets. Actually, the alliance between the US and the Philippines is typical of an alliance between a big power and a small country, in which the big power fears being dragged into a conflict not of its choosing, while the small country fears being sacrificed in the interests of its powerful ally.
The US wants to make use of China's disputes with its neighbors to contain and balance China, but it does not want to become involved in any direct military conflict with China. Its recent promise of not "taking sides" bears testimony to this policy.
Despite the high tensions over territorial claims, China and the Philippines appear to be moving forward on an oil partnership. Philippines President Benigno Aquino said that he would allow Chinese companies to explore oil and gas resources, keeping the political dispute and the commercial venture on two separate tracks, Bloomberg reports.
“We now have an energy source within the region, not subject to the current turmoil that is being experienced and has to be completed in the Middle East,” Aquino said. “Doesn’t it redound to everybody to get these resources online at the soonest possible time?”