While China is still trying to assert itself regionally, it may also be pushing for Philippines to abandon US influence, as it has long aimed to eject Washington’s military presence in region, fulfill its own regional claims
In three questions, Jonathan Fenton-Harvey evaluates the significance of the South China Sea, the countries that have territorial claims there, and potential outcomes.
Why is South China Sea important?
As a crucial trade route that hosts an increasingly large bulk of global trade, the South China Sea has garnered attention from both regional and international stakeholders. Connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans via the Strait of Malacca, its importance has grown in recent years.
Meanwhile, China’s territorial claims and naval expansion in the South China Sea have ignited tensions with its neighbors, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. Using historical justifications, Beijing has employed millennia-old records to bolster its regional assertions.
For its economic interests, China is actively seeking to enhance its maritime routes and increase oil imports through the South China Sea. Beyond its role as a vital fishing area, the region is rich in natural resources, including oil. China has notably positioned an oil rig south of the Paracel Islands, a move that sparked concerns among neighboring nations.
A technology rivalry is also occurring. Taiwan, which China claims as part of its own territory, is a significant manufacturing hub for Western nations, especially in semiconductor production. The dispute over Taiwan’s status has become more heated amid the US’ attempts to block China’s access to these advanced chips.
In the broader context of their technology rivalry, there are numerous undersea cables that serve as the backbone of global internet connectivity. This year, China has pursued the development of its own cable network, connecting Asia and Europe, to challenge US tech giants like Alphabet, Amazon, Meta, and Microsoft, which currently control most of these cables.
What’s unfolding in South China Sea?
A recent confrontation between China and the US-backed Philippines has escalated regional tensions. Chinese ships intercepted a Philippine boat heading to resupply troops at Second Thomas Shoal, controlled by Manila but which China also claims. Three Chinese navy corvettes nearby separated a supply boat and fired a water cannon at Philippine coastguard vessels, as per Philippine images and footage.
Showing long-standing tensions, China has ignored a ruling by the Hague brought by the Philippines in 2016, which said China had no historic title to the seas. Vietnam has also had skirmishes with China in recent years. The current Filipino president, Bongbong Marcos, has sought to strengthen military ties with the US in a break from his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who wanted to reduce the Philippines’ reliance on US military assistance.
The US has often condemned China’s actions and sought to deter them through military cooperation with Beijing’s neighbors. European nations such as the UK and France have conducted naval patrols in the South China Sea to ensure freedom of navigation for trade, while attempting to prevent excessive antagonism towards China.
While China is still trying to assert itself regionally, it may also be pushing for the Philippines to abandon US influence, as it has long aimed to eject Washington’s military presence in the region and fulfill its own regional claims. Amid this war of words, China is encouraging the Philippines to engage in dialogue, and talks to find common ground over this contentious issue are expected.
How likely is a conflict in South China Sea?
Both Manila and Beijing have expressed their desire to de-escalate these latest tensions. However, China’s ambitions in the South China Sea and Washington’s attempts to uphold the US-led regional order are clearly salient issues.
Despite territorial disagreements, China has successfully cultivated economic ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in recent years, which could complicate US efforts to forge an alliance against China, even though ASEAN states have embraced US military support.
However, concerns persist that the ongoing militarization could inadvertently trigger an accidental conflict. Multiple incidents, such as the US accusing a Chinese navy ship in June of performing “unsafe” maneuvers close to a US destroyer in the Taiwan Strait, have underscored this risk.
Even if a conflict erupted, China and the US would likely work to avoid directly plunging into a full-scale war. Both nations have deep economic interdependence and understand the catastrophic implications of such a conflict.
ASEAN could play a pivotal role in facilitating cooperation among regional states, and China’s dialogue with them may support this. Ultimately, the role of China and the US will shape the trajectory of the South China Sea issue. These developments occur against the backdrop of dialogue this year, as high-level officials from both countries have sought to find common ground on various issues.
Given the increasing competition between the US and China across various arenas, spanning economic leverage to technological competition, it is imperative to engage in more profound dialogues. These dialogues can hopefully nurture trust and find potential compromises over such contentious matters.