Status: 02.10.2023, 08:03 a.m.
By: Christiane Kühl, Sven Hauberg
In the territorial dispute over islands and atolls in the South China Sea, China is acting aggressively, especially towards the Philippines. Beijing dislikes Manila's rapprochement with the United States.
Floating lines with plastic buoys are mainly known from the beach. But China's coast guard has also recently been used for this purpose: it stretched a 300-meter-long line with dozens of white buoys between two headlands of the Scarborough Reef to deny passage to Filipino fishing boats. Manila reacted indignantly – and had the chain removed a few days later by a special unit. What seems like a crazy gimmick is quite serious: The Scarborough Reef is located in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, which surrounds the island state in 200 nautical miles wide. But China claims the reef as its own territory.
For a long time, the two countries have been fighting over islands, atolls and reefs in the South China Sea. In total, Beijing claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea as part of China. Years ago, the Philippines filed a lawsuit against these claims before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and won in 2016: the court rejected China's claims. But Beijing doesn't care about the verdict.
China angered by the Philippines' rapprochement with the US
Over the past two years, the climate between Manila and Beijing has heated up, and the number of clashes is increasing. China spent weeks in 2021 anchoring 200 alleged fishing boats in the bay of the Philippines-controlled Whitsun Reef, which no one has ever seen fishing. Since then, the number of incidents has been increasing. In February, a Philippine ship was hit by the laser of a Chinese boat, according to information from Manila. In August, China's coast guard blocked a supply ship from Manila with water cannons. It had wanted to bring food and water to a dozen soldiers who were holding out on a rusty wreck on the edge of the Spratly archipelago to demonstrate Manila's presence there.
One of the reasons for the heightened tensions is the Philippines' greater proximity to the former colonial power United States since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office in June 2022. Marcos allowed the U.S. Navy to use four more Philippine bases, and in April, the two states held the largest joint exercise ever. Marcos even climbed into a Himars rocket launcher – a US weapon that Ukraine is also successfully using against the Russian occupiers.
China is highly allergic to any U.S. presence in the region, such as when the U.S. demonstratively sends warships into the disputed waters in response to incidents. Several times recently, fighter jets from both sides have come dangerously close. China sees itself as a natural hegemon in its backyard. Therefore, the island disputes also harbor supra-regional potential for conflict. International observers warn of an escalation to the point of armed conflict.
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"There is a danger that China will provoke an escalation in order to act more massively, including with shelling," says Saskia Hieber, a lecturer in international politics with a focus on Asia-Pacific at the Academy for Civic Education in Tutzing. "China seems to want to demonstrate how helpless and defenseless the Philippines are - and that the US is not intervening. The US won't do that for the time being, at least not as long as the situation doesn't escalate considerably, for example ships sink and people die."
Shadowed by China's Coast Guard: A Filipino fisherman on his outrigger boat off the controversial Scarborough reef © TED ALJIBE/AFP
One sea, many territorial conflicts
Conflicts are also known elsewhere in the region due to China's large-scale claims, including in Malaysia. But they believe they can solve problems with Beijing at the negotiating table. "We can talk to each other on really controversial issues," Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said at the weekend in an interview with CNN. Like other countries in the region, Malaysia does not want to have to choose between Beijing and Washington. "We need to make sure that we have excellent relations with both China and the US," Ibrahim said.
Malaysia's state-owned company Petronas is exploiting several oil and gas fields off the country's coast in waters that China also claims. Chinese Coast Guard ships have approached the area several times in the past. Further north, in the area of the Spratly and Paracel Islands, Vietnamese fishing boats repeatedly clash with China's coast guard. Because of such problems, Vietnam has also recently been increasingly seeking proximity to its former arch-enemy the USA.
China speaks of diplomacy – but acts with intimidation
China itself officially invokes diplomacy. As a guest at the summit of the Southeast Asian Association of Nations (ASEAN) at the beginning of September, China's Premier Li Qiang declared that any differences of opinion or differences could be resolved through dialogue and consultation. The South China Sea should be a "sea of peace, friendship and cooperation". But China's behavior contradicts the fine words. China is exposing its true intentions by "building runways and military installations on several artificial Chinese islands in the region," writes Rahman Yacoob, a Southeast Asia expert at Australia's Lowy Institute. In addition, there are the intimidation attempts of the Coast Guard.
According to Yacoob, China always tries to blame the interference of "external powers" – usually the United States – as the cause of conflicts with the ASEAN states. "However, this false narrative assumes that ASEAN member states have no capacity to act in identifying threats and in their defence policy." And so Marcos clearly rejected the Chinese narrative at the ASEAN summit: "The Philippines firmly rejects misleading representations that view conflicts in the South China Sea solely through the lens of strategic competition between two powerful countries."
Last week, for the first time, the ASEAN states held a naval maneuver on their own, without the United States or other partners – deliberately near the Indonesian Natuna Islands, which lie directly outside China's claim area. Beijing must recognize that its behavior in the South China Sea prevents closer cooperation between China and ASEAN, says Yacoob. "It must have the political will to bridge the gap between its rhetoric and its actions – otherwise it will find few regional friends in the future."