The Battle for Maritime Asia Heats Up

"Swiftly and surely, China is eviscerating every ounce of diplomatic goodwill it studiously generated."

Despite earlier hopes for a sustained de-escalation in maritime tensions in the Western Pacific, China has once again kicked off the year with a bang. In 2014, China reaffirmed its commitment to securing its territorial claims in the South China Sea by imposing new maritime regulations off of the coast of Hainan, which imperiled the fishing rights of other claimant states such as Vietnam. This was followed by a series of increasingly aggressive maneuvers in the Second Thomas Shoal, culminating with the Chinese Coast Guard vessels’ decision to effectively lay siege to the Filipino marine forces stationed in the area.

Over the past few weeks of this year, China has continued to up the ante by allegedly ramming three Filipino fishing boats navigating close to the Scarborough Shoal, which is located 123 miles west of Subic Bay in the Philippines and 560 miles away from nearest Chinese coastline. China forcibly wrested control of the contested feature in mid-2012, and has since cordoned off the whole area — in complete contravention of a mutual-disengagement agreement, brokered by the Washington, at the height of the Scarborough Shoal standoff. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei deflected criticism of China’s actions by accusing Filipino fishermen of bumping into each other, supposedly necessitating the deployment of a Chinese Coast Guard dinghy to investigate the matter. Implying that the Philippines should be held accountable for irresponsibly turning a blind eye to supposedly provocative maneuvers by its citizens in Chinese-claimed areas, the Chinese Foreign Ministry urged the Philippines’ government to “enhance supervision and allocation of its own fishermen to prevent such an incident from happening again.”

Efforts at calming maritime tensions in the Western Pacific in late-2014, particularly in November, didn't necessarily result in any concrete agreement or even an informal understanding between the Philippines and China on how to manage their maritime disputes. The two sides are yet to negotiate a single hotline between their relevant agencies, particularly naval and coast guard forces, underscoring the precarious dearth of confidence-building mechanisms between the two parties. Bilateral ties have been further embittered by the ongoing legal standoff at The Hague, with the Arbitral Tribunal awaiting Manila’s additional legal arguments by March. Only then will the tribunal decide whether it can exercise jurisdiction over the Philippine-China maritime disputes, and whether China’s expansive claims and territorial posturing violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China has vehemently opposed any compulsory arbitration vis-à-vis its territorial claims in the Western Pacific. Therefore, both parties are sticking to their guns in the absence of any tangible progress at resolving their maritime disputes. This marks a regression in China-Philippines bilateral ties, with neither party significantly altering its respective strategy in the South China Sea.

The ASEAN Chips In

Frustrated by China’s continued provocations well within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario made impassioned remarks ahead of his meeting with colleagues from across Southeast Asia in late January, urging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to show greater resolve and internal unity. He argued that China’s aim to “establish full control” over the South China Sea represents a “watershed” moment for ASEAN’s credibility. During the Foreign Ministers Meeting (FMM) in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, Del Rosario also brought up the topic of China’s expansive construction activities in disputed areas, encouraging fellow ASEAN members to “reach out to the international community to say to China that what it is doing is wrong – that it must stop its reclamation activities at once.” According to a Filipino defense source’s estimate, China has completed almost 50 percent of its reclamation project in the Fiery Cross, a strategic feature in the contested Spratly chain of islands. This chain will likely host its own airstrip by the end of 2015 — a potential prelude to the imposition of a Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea.