The 2010 collision between a Chinese trawler and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in disputed waters in the East China Sea triggered a nasty international spat and brought relations between Tokyo and Beijing to a testy and very public low. An incident involving another dozen Chinese fishing boats, this one in waters of the South China Sea disputed with the Philippines, could turn uglier yet. Warships have become involved in a maritime stand-off near the Scarborough Shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island.
Manila claims its vessel, one of three cutters recently acquired from the U.S., discovered the Chinese boats fishing illegally on April 8. Chinese surveillance ships, technically from the coast guard, not Navy, arrived on the 10th to prevent the Filipino warship capturing the trawlers. Manila subsequently replaced its warship with a coast guard vessel. (Update: A third Chinese surveillance ship has arrived.) Beijing claims the fishing boats were seeking shelter and harassed by the warship. It has also subsequently reiterated its claim to sovereignty over the waters.
The dispute over who owns which part of the East and South China Seas, and the rich resources beneath, is a long-running one. It was a prominent topic at the recent ASEAN summit, but not one that moved anywhere closer to resolution. The latest incident with the Philippines follows China’s detention of 21 Vietnamese fishermen in March while working off the Paracel Islands (Xisha to the Chinese and Hoang Sa to the Vietnamese). Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims of sovereignty over often overlapping parts of the South China Sea. China’s claim is the largest, though, covering a big U-shape over most of the sea’s 1.7 million square kilometers, straddling shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East and below which are believed to be rich oil, gas and mineral deposits.
A year ago, there was tension between China and the Philippines after two Chinese patrol vessels harassed a survey vessel conducting oil exploration in the Reed Bank, about 150 kilometers east of the Spratly Islands. This was seen at the time as another attempt by Beijing to test Manila’s commitment to pursuing its territorial claims. This latest incident looks like a re-run, and a possible test of Washington’s willingness to back its Southeast Asian allies in this dispute, especially since the Obama administration’s announcement of its Asia pivot in foreign policy.
Beijing and Manila both have other issues on their mind at present, including a common concern about North Korea’s imminent launch of a rocket, which is projected to fall to earth near the Philippines’ main island, Luzon. The controversial launch has, though, led to the deployment of U.S. and Japanese naval forces in the East China Sea, which Beijing considers its back yard. This may make it even more prickly in asserting its maritime territorial claims.