The standoff off the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China) between China and the Philippines is taking a different direction to other recent territorial maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas. Previously a confrontational incident, usually involving coast guards and Chinese fishing boats, has been followed by a diplomatic defusing. This time, there has been a second phase of confrontation at sea.
The incident started a week ago when a Filippino naval cutter detained a dozen Chinese fishing vessels for fishing in disputed waters. A vessel from China Marine Surveillance (CMS), the paramilitary maritime law enforcement agency, effectively a coast guard, went to the fishermen’s aid, then a second. Manila swapped its warship for a coast guard vessel. The trawlers were allowed to leave in two batches. One coast guard vessel stayed to face off its Filippino counterpart. But then a second arrived, and on Sunday there was reportedly overflights by Chinese planes.
All these incidents in disputed waters are tests of the other claimants’ will to defend their claims to the disputed waters–and the riches that lie below. They are mostly driven by the more nationalist and military sections of government. The danger is that one will spin out of control. As we suggested earlier, this latest incident is not just a test of Manila but also of Washington’s willingness to back its regional allies. The Philippines and the U.S. are now undertaking joint naval exercises in the area, though these were planned before the stand-off started, and are not happening in disputed waters). For its part, CMS now says it will step up its patrols in the South China Sea. (The BBC has this map of who claims what and where the claims overlap.)
Without a region-wide settlement of the question, something that ASEAN has been trying to broker without success, these incidents at sea will continue, as will the risk of one of them escalating. The more the uniformed services take matters into their own hands, the greater that risk becomes.