As the United States takes a more relaxed stand toward China, sidestepping just discovered support of the North Korean weapons program, China has taken an increasingly belligerent position in its ongoing intimidation, which focuses on complete domination of the South China Sea. Now China has taken a new step, suggesting the possibility of “armed confrontation” in retaliation for US interference. This threat coincides with US military exercises in a distant section of the South China Sea and scheduled exercises within the contested region.
China has insisted for decades that the area in question, in fact all of the South China Sea, is historically the dominion of China. They point to artifacts and historical truths to support that claim. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and Brunei have competing claims to various parts of the waters, including the potentially resource-rich Spratly islands, the Paracel Island area and adjacent waters. In fact the documentation of the claims of these nations is weak and unenforceable. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), comprised of ten nations, has only an agreement from 1982 (1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Part 5, Article 55) and reaffirmed in 2002 to make their claim. That agreement stresses such ideals as “The promotion of a peaceful, friendly and harmonious environment” and “mutual trust between the two sides” and emphasizes hopes that the parties concerned “undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on Sunday called upon other nations to take a stand against Chinese aggressiveness. “Since the freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce in the [South China Sea] are of great import to many nations, all should consider what China is endeavoring to do in the Scarborough Shoal,” del Rosario said. “All, not just the Philippines, will be ultimately negatively affected if we do not take a stand.” Secretary del Rosario maintains that the Chinese claim to the area is “clearly baseless.”
China’s Liberation Army Daily warned that with the continuation of military exercises the situation could boil over into outright conflict. That warning placed the blame for any conflict on the US administration.
In the words of the Chinese newspaper:
Anyone with clear eyes saw long ago that behind these drills is reflected a mentality that will lead the South China Sea issue down a fork in the road towards military confrontation and resolution through armed force. Through this kind of meddling and intervention, the United States will only stir up the entire South China Sea situation towards increasing chaos, and this will inevitably have a massive impact on regional peace and stability.
On June 2, 2011, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs sent a message to the Chinese embassy protesting activities of Chinese vessels, citing repeated incidents of Chinese aircraft and naval vessels entering Philippine territory and taking provocative acts, including the use of naval gunfire, against unarmed fishing vessels.
On June 9, in a second incident, a net from a Chinese fishing boat became entangled in the cables of a Vietnamese oil exploring vessel. That vessel dragged the Chinese fishermen in excess of one hour, until the Chinese cut the net. Prior to the entanglement, according to the crew of the Vietnamese vessel, the fishing boat “intentionally rammed” the Vietnamese ship in a premeditated and carefully calculated attack. China saw the incident differently; the Chinese accused Vietnam of “gravely violating” its sovereignty, and endangering Chinese lives. China went on to warn Vietnam to stop all “invasive activities”.
Now, on April 8, 2012, the Philippines sent a warship to arrest the crews of eight Chinese fishing boats at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. China responded with three civilian maritime vessels that effectively blocked the warship. China has since refused to withdraw from that region, calling for a retreat by the Philippine navy.
Retired Philippine Navy Commodore and analyst Rex Robles in late 2011 indicated his belief that, “Even if we are three times more prepared than we are now, we [would be] defeated because China… can blow us out of the water easily.” But, he insists, a war with China would be costly to all involved, “If war breaks out there, China’s development will also be stunted,” he told reporters, “China’s resources are quite huge, but maybe not enough to sustain a war there.”
Not broached in current coverage of these developments, but possibly linked, is the North Korean failed missile launch that was originally planned to fly directly over the Philippine Islands.