Council for Strategic Affairs

Council for Strategic Affairs

Dragon’s Lust for the Pearl of the Orient: China’s Maritime Hegemony & The South Champa Sea Conundrum

By Nakshatra Jagannath & Dr. A Adityanjee

Background

Since the 2012 Scarborough Shoal naval standoff has continued. It was followed by the illegal Chinese occupation and illegal blocking of Filipino ships by Chinese naval assets in the West Philippine Sea. The encroachment of the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by Communist China has further contributed to worsening in the relations between the two countries. The irrational but expansionist Chinese claim of the so-called Nine-Dash line which claims about 90 percent of the South Champa Sea (South China Sea) has been a major bone of contention for years between China and the Philippines and other ASEAN countries. The claim is not only illegal according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but also leads to forcible gaining control of excessive maritime areas, and subsequent militarization of the region by building artificial structures, naval blockades, and naval exercises among others. China is a signatory to the UNCLOS and routinely does repeatedly agree to the same. This militarization not only violates international maritime laws and undermines the sovereignty of smaller nations but also breeds instability in the Indo-Pacific region. Unfortunately, the US under Obama administration did not show the spine to China when this hegemonic behavior started.

Introduction to Maritime Conundrum

Maritime disputes in the South China Sea (aka South Champa Sea) have time and again been made to the international headlines and have drawn sharp reactions from across the globe, especially the Western world. In most of these maritime disputes, one party invariably is the People’s Republic of China. One such dispute is between The Philippines and communist China. This dispute has aggravated over the years despite bilateral agreements, diplomatic dialogues, and ASEAN maritime arrangements in the past. For more than two decades, a hegemonic Communist China has refused to negotiate a peaceful Code of Conduct (CoC) with the ASEAN. China’s preferred tactic is to bully smaller nations in bilateral settings. Chinese wolf warrior diplomat Yang Jiechi once famously stated in 2014 in the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore that China is a big country and other ASEAN nations need to understand this fact.

The reasons and initiated events that shaped the dialogue

China Filipino Maritime Conflict: In the most recent standoff, the Chinese Coast Guard used water cannons and disabled a Philippines’ boat in the waters near the Second Thomas Shoal. China claims it to be an integral part of its territory in contravention to the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. On these disputed waters, the Philippines mans an outpost using a grounded World War II ship- The Sierra Madre, this deteriorating ship requires regular repairs for which basic supplies to sustain are provided by Philippines’ boats. In the recent past, when a Philippines’ boat was on its way to supply to the deteriorating warship, the Chinese Coast Guard went all offensive and deployed a water cannon against Philippine supply vessels to block the vessel from supplying to Sierra Madre. This hostile act caused severe damage to the engine, thereby disabling the vessel, and severely endangering the lives of the Philippines’ naval officials onboard. No injuries or casualties were reported after this incident; however, this could have led to massive collateral damage thereby escalating the conflict in the region to brew pan Indo-Pacific instability.  The Chinese expansionist approach and illegal attempts to occupy the South Champa Sea (aka South China Sea) is a serious threat to regional stability and prosperity. China is the largest trading partner of the Philippines and economic inter-dependency is quite visible. However, further escalation in this conflict could lead to adverse effects not only on trade and commerce but also on international peace and security. The Philippines’ understanding of communist China has changed drastically since the administration of the new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. who decided to take a harder and more nationalistic approach against Chinese expansionist and aggressive actions. He is attempting to strengthen ties with the US as opposed to the regime of Ex-President Duterte who worked tirelessly to rebuild ties with the Beijing. The Manila of today has repeatedly proclaimed that it shall stand up to what they term is the Chinese act of bullying. On the other hand, the Chinese regime routinely claims without any evidence that Manila is violating China’s maritime sovereignty. Not surprisingly, one Chinese news anchor even claimed incredulously that China had sovereignty over the entire nation of the Philippines.

US Treaty Obligations: After this incident, all eyes were focused on the United States of America as the Philippines and the US have a mutual defense treaty in place since 1951. The clause 4 of the same treaty categorically extends to armed attacks on Philippines’ establishments, vessels, or people anywhere in the South China Sea aka South Champa Sea. Further escalation of conflict could trigger this clause and the US could vigorously and actively involve itself in the Philippines-China conflict and surrounding maritime boundaries and territories. The US State Department, immediately after this standoff, stated that it shall seek to protect the interests of its ally. The US and China for far too long have been in what one would term a cold war 2.0 to establish global supremacy and hegemony. China uses its expansionist policy in the South Champa Sea (South China Sea) to dominate the Indo-Pacific region where the US has notable allies. The US on the other hand through its allies and partners seeks to counterbalance the dominance of the dragon by warning to trigger clauses of mutual defense and allied treaties that it shares with nations, e.g. the Philippines in the Indo-Pacific region. The US views the attempts to dominate and the growing influence of the dragon in the region as a threat to regional stability and the US hold in the region. Therefore, the Biden administration should ideally leave no stone unturned to check China’s growing belligerence. Japan, for instance, faces similar problems with the Chinese expansionist policy in the Japan Sea about Senkaku islands. The Biden administration apart from giving out strong-worded statements, shortly, should consider conducting joint exercises with Manila to safeguard the Filipino interests and actively deter the dragon from undertaking any unscrupulous means to succeed in its illegal claim over most of the South Champa Sea (South China Sea).

Xi Jinping’s Wet and Watery Dreams: Communist China wants to control the maritime domain of the entire Indo-Pacific starting with islands in the first island chain. China is showing hostility and belligerence towards Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines in pursuit of its hegemonic ambitions. During bilateral summit with Joe Biden on the sidelines of the APEC summit in November 2023, Xi Jinping reportedly told Biden that it is a matter of time that China and Taiwan will reunify, and no one will be able to stop it.

From the current scenario, Beijing is testing the patience of the White House while avoiding any major confrontation with the US. The use of water cannons by the Chinese coastguards and ramming Filipino naval vessels is part of its grey zone tactics. China’s avoidance of armed conflict with the US FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations) is a testament to the same. Moreover, the Chinese statement accused interference by outside powers like the US in the region and in the so-called internal matters of the People’s Republic of China.

Nakshatra Jagannath
CSA Training Fellow at the Council for Strategic Affairs. He is based in Kolkata, India.

Dr. A Adityanjee
President of the Council for Strategic Affairs. He is based in Cleveland, OH, USA.

Conclusion

However, To conclude, The Philippines must exercise caution and restraint from drawing a blank cheque support from the Biden administration. The US has tendency to leave its allies high and dry amongst thick of conflicts in the past when it no longer suited the US geopolitical interests. If the US of today is to be involved in the conflict, it will be for strengthening US position and safeguarding its own influence over the Indo-Pacific rather than securing the interests of the Philippines. On the other hand, the dragon will tread carefully without compromising on its illegal thirst for expansion of maritime and land territories and global supremacy. China deliberately continues to question the authority, jurisdiction and the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague regarding this conflict with the Philippines. The dragon will also continue to test the patience of what it considers as a weak White House under the Biden regime. The US inaction and mere agreeing behaviour are evidence that the US is consolidating its US-centric and Euro-centric approach. Its rhetoric does not match the actual behavior. Fortress America does not care about any other nation. Its behavior belies the US promise of making free and open Indo-Pacific as a region of grave priority.