Once again, the South China Sea is poised to become a security flashpoint amid growing concerns over military conflict. China’s aggressive expansion in the region has found new ground, Whitsun Reef, where 220 Chinese vessels are currently moored in the area, which falls under the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the Philippines. China, which claims the reef under their nine-dash line, says the vessels have been stationed since March 7 and are fishing boats seeking shelter in bad weather and not Chinese maritime militias as stated.

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The Philippine Coast Guard, however, is not shy about taking a tough stance. Currently, the Philippine military aircraft and navy are monitoring the situation on a daily basis, and China has been warned that there will be an increased military presence to carry out “sovereignty patrols”. The Philippine Secretary of Defense said, “We stand ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines.

If China is successful in its moves, the Philippines could lose another fishing ground, like what happened in 2012 when China took control of the Scarborough Shoal.

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In 2020, at the height of the global pandemic, China was accused of exploiting the crisis to advance its actions in the region. In April last year, China sank a Vietnamese fishing boat and also disrupted Malaysian oil exploration. This prompted the United States to deploy Navy aircraft and ships to assess the situation. The current situation is already serious and international involvement will lead to increased hostility.

The story so far

China and the Philippines, along with other Southeast Asian countries, have long been part of disputes over sovereign claims to the region’s islands, reefs and seabed. A third of the world’s maritime trade passes through the South China Sea every year. The seabed here is believed to be reserves of oil and natural gas as well as supporting fisheries essential to the food security of millions of people in South Asia.

The majority of disputes relate to the lack of adherence to international “exclusive economic zones” which extend up to 200 nautical miles from the coast of any state. China, in particular, is notorious for repeatedly ignoring the law.

China Philippines dispute, South China Sea dispute, Chinese ships in the Philippines, Whitsun Reef, Indian Express Chinese ships anchor the Whitsun Reef in the disputed South China Sea on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. (©2021 Maxar Technologies via AP)

To back up its claim to the majority of the South China Sea, Beijing has long cited the “nine-dash line”, based on unverified historical accounts. In January 2013, the Philippines formally conducted the arbitration proceedings against this claim in The Hague, and in 2016 the tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and declared that the nine-dash line was illegal under the United Nations Convention. United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The landmark decision infuriated China, which dismissed it as “ill-founded” and continues to maintain its presence in the undisputed territories.

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The Philippines’ response and President Duterte

The Philippine military response appears to be cohesive and if things take a turn for the worst they will likely receive support from regional and foreign allies, particularly the United States. President Joe Biden, in an address to the Quad countries, said the country will make China play by the rules. There are also reports that some NATO countries are seeking to send warships to the region.

Meanwhile, since taking office in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has enjoyed warm relations with China based on promises of greater economic cooperation, billions of dollars in trade and loans. However, not much happened on that front.

China Philippines dispute, South China Sea dispute, Chinese ships in the Philippines, Whitsun Reef, Indian Express Chinese ships in the Whitsun Reef. The United States said on Tuesday it backed the Philippines in a new standoff with Beijing in the disputed South China Sea. (©2021 Maxar Technologies via AP)

After lengthy deliberations, in 2020 President Duterte took a tough and outspoken approach to the ongoing disputes in the region. In his address to the 75th General Assembly, he reaffirmed The Hague’s decision and its willingness to toughen their response. However, critics still view the president’s words with skepticism as his speech was a sudden shift in tone from his previous rejection of the decision in the early years of his presidency. The speech itself was lined with a slightly soft and diplomatic approach to the Chinese, as Duterte may seek to seek infrastructure funding from China.

What is China saying?

In this regard, the Chinese reiterated that the vessels are just fishing boats seeking shelter from the weather, although no bad weather has been reported in the area. Fishermen are also unlikely to have the financial capital to stand still for weeks. Experts say that through their current occupation, China could seek to create a civilian base on the reef, an artificial island or even simply control airspace.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila, in a statement, said: “There is no Chinese maritime militia as claimed. Any speculation about it serves no purpose but causes unnecessary irritation. With reports of NATO intervention, China’s defense minister visits European countries to foster military cooperation.

China Philippines dispute, South China Sea dispute, Chinese ships in the Philippines, Whitsun Reef, Indian Express China says the vessels are fishing boats seeking shelter in bad weather and not Chinese maritime militias as stated. (©2021 Maxar Technologies via AP)

It is widely believed that President Duterte’s soft approach has further boosted China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

And then ?

While China prefers to engage in bilateral negotiations, its neighbors say Beijing has an advantage due to its size and global dominance. As the majority of Southeast Asian countries are members of the ASEAN, China is working on developing a code of conduct for the region through the organization. China has engaged in economic cooperation with regional countries to coordinate oil and natural resource exploration efforts.

The West, on the other hand, feels threatened because it sees China’s approach as a direct threat to its policies. China’s disregard for international mandates is evidence of its growing power and the weakening of international regimes as they struggle to enforce their authority. There is no doubt that China shapes international law according to its needs, it has invested strategically in research and scholarly work to reflect its national interests.

Nandni Mahajan is an intern at indianexpress.com