Last Monday, Qin Gang of the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that China Coast Guard vessels on the previous day had prevented two Philippine-flagged ships from approaching Second Thomas Shoal. Beijing’s sailors “spoke through amplifier” and warded off the intruders, the spokesman explained. “It is known to all that China has sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their surrounding waters, including the Ren’ai Reef,” said Qin, using Beijing’s name for the shoal.
In fact, only Beijing thinks China has sovereignty over Ren’ai, which Manila calls Ayungin Shoal. The long and thin coral outcropping is part of the Spratlys, 250 islands and reefs covering 165,000 square miles of the South China Sea. The contested reef is 105 nautical miles from Palawan Island of the Philippines. Hainan Island, China’s closest point, is about five times farther away.
Beijing has expansive territorial claims in the area. Its official maps contain nine dashes, in the form of a tongue, that encompass about 90 percent of the South China Sea, recognized by all states other than China as international water. Beijing’s apparent claim is inconsistent with obligations it has undertaken by treaty and has no support in international law.
In recent years the Chinese have employed rough tactics to enforce their designs on the area. In early 2012, for instance, China’s vessels first surrounded and then took control of Scarborough Shoal, a part of the Philippines about 120 nautical miles off the main island of Luzon. In June of that year, both Beijing and Manila agreed, after mediation by Washington, to withdraw their craft from Scarborough’s waters. Only Manila did so, however, and to this day Chinese ships prevent Filipinos from returning to their traditional fishing grounds.
Chinese state media brazenly boasted of their government’s seizure, and Chinese military officers, emboldened by success, now arrogantly trumpet their provocative acts. Major General Zhang Zhaozhong, for instance, described what he called the “cabbage strategy” that was successfully employed to seize Scarborough. By wrapping an island “layer by layer like a cabbage” with small vessels, Chinese forces could keep out the ships of other nations.
At Second Thomas Shoal, China is using a small flotilla to strangle a tiny Philippine garrison. There, Manila in 1999 grounded the Sierra Madre, a World War II-vintage hospital ship, to mark its territory, leaving a handful of marines on board. As General Zhang explained, China, with its cabbage tactics can block resupply of troops like those on that rusting vessel. Without provisions, the troopers stationed there will be forced to leave after one or two weeks. “Once they have left, they will never be able to come back,” Zhang gloats.
That’s obviously why the Chinese craft turned back Manila’s two vessels last Sunday. And Beijing’s action was an escalation of the situation. “For 15 years we have conducted regular resupply missions and personnel rotation without interference from China,” said Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez at the beginning of the week. Beijing’s vessels did not block a supply run in June 2013.
Why did the Chinese decide to act at this moment? Ernest Bower of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies told Reuters that their belligerent move could be the result of their perception that Washington was less than resolute in Syria and Ukraine so it would be similarly weak in the South China Sea. That’s an interesting theory, but there is a more direct explanation. The Chinese know that the U.S. did nothing to challenge them after their clear act of aggression in taking Scarborough. To make matters worse, Washington did not react even though they had repudiated the agreement it had brokered.