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Troubled Waters: Increasing Tensions in the South China Sea

One of the busiest waterways and trade routes in the Indo-Pacific region, the South China Sea has been a long disputed territory, resulting in an escalating regional diplomatic decay. An area of immense geopolitical importance, the contested sea has seen a steady increase in strained relations, drawing international attention. At the heart of the issue lies competing territorial claims over various islands, reefs, and waters in the South China Sea. China asserts historic rights over almost the entire sea, demarcating its claims with the infamous Nine-Dash Line, which conflicts with the claims of neighbouring countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan. 

In recent months, the media has redirected its spotlight on the Scarborough shoals, reporting an increase in activity. With a surge in Philippine fishermen monitoring the shoals, as well as Chinese coastguards taking more frequent rounds, the Scarborough shoals have become the latest focus of the South China Sea conflict. 

British journalist and author Tim Marshall has previously discussed the South China Sea dispute in detail. Marshall emphasised the vitality of the Nine-Dash line in providing open access to and from the Pacific Ocean, one of the most frequently used maritime trade routes in the world. By claiming jurisdiction over nearly 200 islands within this radius, the Chinese government sought to extend their naval power and territory; however, the same inevitably strained relations with countries surrounding the contentious sea. 

Other countries in the region, including Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have also asserted their territorial claims throughout the South China Sea conflict. Particularly, Taiwan's stance on the South China Sea issue is passive, yet strategic. The island nation, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), has often refrained from making public claims on its territory in the South China Sea but continues to uphold its security and military presence. Taiwan's position aligns with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), advocating for a peaceful resolution and rejecting unilateral actions that may escalate tensions. 

Despite not being a direct claimant state, Taiwan closely monitors regional developments due to its significance for trade and security as outlined by Clingendael Spectator, an official publication of the Netherlands Institute for International Relations. Taiwan emphasises the importance of freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes, aiming to maintain stability in the South China Sea. However, Taiwan's stance is also influenced by its complex relationship with China, which has made territorial claims over the island nation. As tensions persist, Taiwan, similar to the rest of the region, faces the challenge of balancing its territorial claims with regional stability and diplomatic relations.

In December 2023, tensions heightened as the Philippines accused China of encroaching upon its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) near the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed territory claimed by both nations. The Philippines protested against China's actions in an exchange of publicly made accusations, escalating the dispute. In response, China reaffirmed its claims over the South China Sea and defended its activities as within its sovereign rights. More recently, on March 23rd, 2024, the Chinese Coast Guard reportedly fired water cannons at a Filipino Supply ship leaving 3 troops injured. In an immediate response, the government in Manila lodged an official complaint with Chinese diplomats, citing a “disregard for international law.” 

The increasingly strained relations between the Philippines and China regarding the South China Sea, however, date back to 2012. The first incident of Chinese Surveillance ships encroaching into Philippine waters, reportedly impacting the diverse marine life of the Scarborough Shoals, resulted in an arbitration case. With a UN tribunal case spanning over years, no concrete solution was achieved, as both states continued to claim that the opposing party was undermining territorial sovereignty and legitimacy. The deteriorating dynamics, as described in a research report by Professor Ananda Devi Domingo-Almase of the National Defense College of the Philippines, saw the case gain international attention, as the Philippine government attached the UNCLOS to its case, claiming a threat to its territorial sovereignty. 

Following the events of March 23rd, the Philippines has gained international support to counter China's assertions. India, a key player in the Indo-Pacific region, openly backed the Philippines' sovereignty over the Philippines’ territory in the South China Sea. Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar's visit to Manila recognised India's support for upholding international law and the UNCLOS, urging peaceful resolution of disputes and respect for sovereignty. China reacted sharply to India's stance, urging India to respect its claims over the South China Sea. This exchange highlighted the complexity of alliances and interests in the region. Prior to this, China's National People’s Congress announced a 7.2% increase in defence spending due to rising hostility in the South China Sea Region, at the annual parliament meeting.

The international response to the China-Philippines dispute has been mixed, reflecting broader geopolitical dynamics. While some countries, like India and the United States, have openly supported the Philippines' territorial rights and called for a peaceful resolution based on international law, others have adopted a more cautious approach. Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea have expressed “grave concern,” but remain wary of outrightly antagonising China.

The United States, a longstanding ally of the Philippines, has conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, challenging China's extensive maritime claims and asserting the rights of all nations to navigate through international waters. These actions have drawn criticism from China, which perceives the US as a provocative and destabilising force in the region.

The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) also discusses the escalating tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. It emphasised the increasing assertiveness of China in making its territorial claims, particularly through militarisation and the construction of artificial islands. The Philippines, in response, has sought to bolster its defence capabilities and strengthen alliances with other regional powers like the United States and Japan. The Philippines' efforts to balance its economic interests with the need to protect its sovereignty and maritime rights have gained international recognition and support. The USIP has also underscored the role of international law and diplomatic mechanisms for resolving disputes, emphasising the importance of multilateral cooperation in addressing the complex issues in the South China Sea. 

Meanwhile, regional Intergovernmental Organisations and forums have attempted to facilitate dialogue and mitigate tensions in the region. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been crucial in promoting a rules-based order and fostering cooperation among member states. However, internal divisions within ASEAN have hindered unified action on the South China Sea issue, with some member states like Cambodia, Myanmar, and Malaysia preferring to pursue bilateral negotiations with China.

Maintaining regional peace and security stands as a pivotal concern for ASEAN while fostering strong and strategic ties with China remains imperative for safeguarding regional economic, security and diplomatic interests. Within the context of a territorial dispute involving multiple ASEAN nations to varying degrees, the task of delicately crafting a diplomatic solution to preserve harmonious relations between ASEAN members and China grows increasingly challenging. Despite these tensions, neither ASEAN as a collective entity nor its member nations have openly "condemned" these actions or sought to impose sanctions on China, fearing potential damage to lucrative economic ties at the expense of regional security and stability.

In an attempt to strengthen security and surveillance in the South China Sea, Vietnam and the Philippines also founded an agreement for an expansion of their collaboration. This specifically focused on a cooperative approach between both national coastguards, intending to prevent further political issues within the disputed waters. This was further supported by the Australian government as they announced a $1.3 billion fund at the ASEAN summit in Melbourne as tensions in the South China Sea continue to escalate. Part of their ongoing trade and investment deals with Southeast Asia, this fund is reportedly aimed at ensuring a united front in diplomatic negotiations between ASEAN and China. Australia has repeatedly expressed concerns over the South China Sea dispute and continues to promote a solution aligning with international maritime law. 

The wider lack of solidarity within ASEAN, however, potentially undermines its efficacy and response, which has to date been limited in addressing this issue. While the Philippines and Vietnam exhibit increasingly strained relations with China, Indonesia, on the contrary, endeavours to bolster ties with China through various foreign policy and defence cooperation initiatives. The likelihood of a unified ASEAN response to the South China Sea territorial dispute remains uncertain. Governments across the region must persist in robust diplomatic efforts through ASEAN, bilaterally, and multilaterally, while seeking international assistance and cooperation to effectively resolve these territorial disputes.

The escalating tensions in the South China Sea underscore the challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region, where competing interests and territorial disputes intersect. As China continues to assert its dominance in the South China Sea, the international community, specifically key actors such as the US, ASEAN, Australia and the involved southeast Asian nations, faces the daunting task of upholding maritime security, promoting peaceful resolution of disputes, and safeguarding the principles of international law. 


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