Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 8 April 2021


Beijing tests US in South China Sea

Anger in The Philippines over China’s deployment of hundreds of maritime militia ships masquerading as fishing boats, which violates the country’s territorial integrity in defiance of international law, is well justified. So is Washington’s dispatch of the US 7th Fleet’s powerful USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group to the South China Sea amid rising tensions over the aggressive new attempt by Beijing to assert ownership over territory that does not belong to it. The US armada of warships includes the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill and guided-missile destroyer USS Russell.

As Amanda Hodge has reported, tensions between The Philippines and China are broiling over the presence of what was at its peak a flotilla of 220 Chinese maritime militia ships deep inside Philippine territorial waters, 300km off the mainland. The ships have been anchored close to the strategic Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly Islands. As it entrenches itself around Whitsun Reef, China has claimed the flotilla consists of fishing boats innocently sheltering from bad weather. But though their numbers have been reduced, most of the maritime militia ships have been there for several weeks. The weather has been fine. And analysis by the US Naval War College has found “no evidence of fishing whatsoever, but every indication of trolling for territorial claims”.

Philippine Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana has accused China of seeking “to occupy land forms inside Philippine waters”: “The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy (areas belonging to The Philippines). They have done this before,” he said, referring to Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef, which were seized by China in 2012 and 1995 in similar operations. Reports that “illegally constructed structures” have been sighted on what are known as the Union Banks, a group of reefs in the Spratlys, have added to fury in The Philippines. These are assumed to be another sign of China digging in.

To its credit, the Biden administration has been quick to pledge strong support for The Philippines in the stand-off. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has strongly reaffirmed “the applicability of the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty” to the South China Sea and tensions surrounding Whitsun Reef. He is right to have done so. China’s lawless attempts to intimidate The Philippines and colonise more territory in the South China Sea, through which more than a third of the world’s trade passes, is a test for the Biden administration’s declared determination to stand up to Chinese bullying. The challenge must be met.

For more than a decade China has moved aggressively to establish dominance in waters surrounding The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan, building military installations and harassing and bullying other nations. Its aggression against The Philippines is the latest manifestation of Beijing’s disregard for a rules-based world order and the 2016 rejection by a UN arbitral tribunal of its claims to 90 per cent of the South China Sea.

All nations that rely on the right to freedom of navigation through the South China Sea must support The Philippines in its stand-off. China must not be allowed to get away with what is, in effect, a further stage in its drive to dominate the waterways of Southeast Asia. That objective, if it was achieved, would put China in an even stronger position to make good on its threats to overrun democratic Taiwan.

Confronting China will require close collaboration involving the Quad nations (the US, Japan, Australia and India) and Southeast Asian nations whose sovereignty has been threatened or usurped by China’s unrelenting maritime aggression. President Joe Biden carries a heavy responsibility in dealing with Beijing’s aggression against The Philippines. China will be watching closely to see how he responds. A re-run of the Obama and Trump years, with tough talking but no more than warships cruising past disputed islands, is unlikely to deter China from its present aggressive course.

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