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SOUTH CHINA SEA: TROUBLED WATERS | Deep Analysis

The Straits of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz, despite their troubled waters, stand as vital maritime corridors linking the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. These strategic routes are essential for global energy markets, facilitating the transport of oil and gas shipments between key regions. Both these straits play a pivotal role in ensuring the uninterrupted flow of energy resources worldwide.

In contrast, the Suez Canal in Egypt and the Panama Canal provide crucial shortcuts for global trade. The Suez Canal, connecting Europe to Asia, significantly reduces travel times for ships compared to navigating around Africa. In 2019, nearly 19,000 vessels carrying a staggering 1 billion tons of cargo traversed the Suez Canal, showcasing its immense importance to global trade. However, recent events, such as the Suez Canal blockage caused by a Taiwanese container ship, highlighted the canal’s vulnerability to disruption, despite ongoing expansion efforts initiated by the Egyptian government in 2015.

Similarly, the Panama Canal provides a vital shortcut for ships traveling between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, particularly benefiting vessels sailing between the east and west coasts of the U.S. This shortcut saves over 8,000 nautical miles and more than 21 days in travel time. In 2019, the Panama Canal facilitated the transportation of approximately 252 million tons of goods, generating over $2.6 billion in tolls.

Let us delve into South China Sea troubled waters.

South China Sea

Coming to the South China Sea via Malacca strait, the region is a strategically vital body of water in Southeast Asia, and serves as a crucial maritime route for global trade, with about one-third of the world’s shipping passing through its waters. Rich in natural resources like oil and gas reserves and home to important fisheries, the region is significant with respect to economic value.

However, the South China Sea is also a contemporary geopolitical hotspot due to overlapping territorial claims by multiple countries. China’s assertion of historical claims to most of the sea, demarcated by the controversial “new ten dash line,” conflicts with the claims of neighboring countries and this is a bone of contention between the claimant states and China. Moreover, China’s construction of artificial islands and military installations in disputed areas raises concerns about sovereignty, freedom of navigation, and potential military confrontations. The region’s geopolitical significance extends beyond territorial disputes, influencing broader power dynamics in Asia and shaping alliances and partnerships among regional and global powers.

Ongoing Conflicts in Region:

The troubled waters of The South China Sea have become a hotbed of conflict, with several nations laying claim to its strategic locations and abundant natural resources. While all the bordering nations lay claims to parts of South China Sea, primarily the conflict centers around the sovereignty of various island groups, notably the Spratly Islands.

The vast sea is not just about territorial claims; it’s also about the wealth beneath its waves. It is estimated to hold 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Claimant states have their eye on these untapped riches.

In the meanwhile, China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea has emerged as a major concern. This assertiveness has escalated tensions, especially with Southeast Asian states like the Philippines, and Vietnam. China insists that international law prohibits foreign militaries from conducting intelligence-gathering activities within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). However, the United States and other claimant countries counter this stance. They argue that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) guarantees them freedom of navigation through the high seas. Furthermore, they maintain that they are not obligated to notify claimants of their military activities.

Historical Background of Territorial Claims

The historical background of territorial claims in the South China Sea is complex and dates back centuries. Here’s a brief exploration:

1. Historical Records:

Historical documents reveal a rich tale of interaction with the South China Sea, with numerous empires, kingdoms, and indigenous communities having traversed and settled in its waters over the centuries. For instance, the Han Dynasty, which ruled China from 206 BC to 220 AD, is known to have asserted sovereignty over sections of the sea. They established their control over various islands and facilitated maritime trade, enhancing their influence and economic power.

Similarly, the Ming Dynasty, which reigned from 1368 to 1644, also staked claims in the South China Sea. They not only controlled several islands but also promoted extensive maritime trade, which played a significant role in the prosperity and cultural exchange during that era. The voyages of the famous explorer Zheng He, under the patronage of the Ming Dynasty, are a testament to the strategic importance of the South China Sea in fostering international trade and diplomacy since the ancient times. These historical instances provide a glimpse into the long-standing significance of the South China Sea.

2. Historical Maps and Texts:

Chinese historical documents, including maps and written texts, frequently illustrate various islands and geographical features within the South China Sea as integral parts of China’s territory. These territorial claims were not arbitrary but were rooted in historical expeditions, established trade routes, and sporadic administrative oversight.

For instance, ancient Chinese maps often included detailed depictions of the South China Sea islands, indicating their recognition and assertion of these territories. These maps served as crucial evidence of China’s historical claims over the region.

Occasionally, China also exercised administrative control over parts of the South China Sea. This control was often manifested in the form of naval patrols, collection of tribute from other regional powers, and the establishment of military outposts on strategic islands.

3. Colonial Period:

The colonial period marked a significant chapter in the history of the South China Sea. During this era, several European powers, notably Spain, the Netherlands, and France, staked their claims and established a presence on some islands in the South China Sea. Spain, under its vast and powerful empire, extended its influence to parts of the South China Sea. The Spanish East Indies, which included the Philippines and other Pacific islands, were a testament to Spain’s colonial reach in the region.

The Dutch, known for their maritime prowess, also made their mark in the South China Sea. The Dutch East Indies, now modern-day Indonesia, was a significant Dutch colony that included territories in the South China Sea. France, through its colony of French Indochina, which encompassed present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, also had a stake in the South China Sea. The French claimed several islands in the region.

However, the presence of these European colonial powers was relatively limited compared to their vast global empires. Their claims in the South China Sea often overlapped with China’s historical assertions, leading to complex territorial disputes that echo into the present day.

4. Modern Territorial Disputes:

In the aftermath of World War II and the dissolution of colonial rule, the South China Sea became the stage for a new era of territorial disputes. Two primary actors in these modern disputes are the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China. Both nations inherited historical claims to the region, carrying forward the legacy of their predecessors.

One of the most significant of these inherited claims is the “dash line” assertion. This claim, which is depicted as a demarcation line consisting of nine dashes on Chinese maps, encompasses the majority of the South China Sea. It includes numerous islands and key waterways, making it a point of contention with other nations in the region.

The “nine-dash line” assertion is based on historical maps and maritime records, which, according to China, provide evidence of their historical rights over the region. However, this claim has been a subject of international dispute and has been challenged by several countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

These modern territorial disputes in the South China Sea are not just about land and sea but also about national pride and strategic advantage. As these disputes continue to unfold, they shape the geopolitical landscape of the region and have significant implications for international law and global peace.

5. Post-Colonial Claims:

In the post-colonial era, the South China Sea became a focal point of territorial assertions by several Southeast Asian nations. Countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei began to stake their claims, asserting sovereignty over various islands, reefs, and waters within the South China Sea.

Vietnam, for instance, has been particularly assertive in claiming parts of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, citing historical evidence and international law. These claims have often brought it into direct conflict with China, leading to several naval standoffs.

The Philippines, on the other hand, has laid claim to parts of the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal. The country has even taken its dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, resulting in a landmark ruling in 2016 that rejected China’s “nine-dash line” claim.

Malaysia and Brunei, while less vocal, have also asserted their rights over parts of the South China Sea. Malaysia claims a number of islands as part of its continental shelf, while Brunei claims an exclusive economic zone off its coast.

6. Legal Frameworks:

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), often referred to as the “constitution of the oceans,” provides a crucial legal framework for addressing maritime disputes worldwide, including those in the contentious South China Sea region.

Enforced since 1994, UNCLOS sets the legal parameters for all activities in the oceans and seas. It highlights the rights and obligations of nations regarding oceanic resources, offering guidelines for commercial enterprises, environmental protection, and the governance of marine resources. In the context of the South China Sea, UNCLOS plays a pivotal role. It provides the legal basis for defining maritime zones, including territorial seas, exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and continental shelves, which are central to the disputes in the region.

However, the application of UNCLOS in resolving the South China Sea disputes has been fraught with challenges. Not all claimant states have ratified UNCLOS, creating hurdle in its universal application. For instance, while China ratified UNCLOS in 1996, it has made reservations about certain dispute settlement procedures provided in the convention.

The Arbitral Tribunal issued a final award on the South China Sea arbitration case brought against China by the Philippines in 2016. This award has been considered as providing a legal background for the maritime activities taken by various countries in the South China Sea.

Furthermore, the Philippines has gradually confirmed the value of the Award. In his speech to the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2020, Former President Rodrigo Duterte stated that “the Award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.”

Inspite of these developments, China consistently moves away from its designated UNCLOS boundaries, encroaching upon the coastlines and maritime activities of neighboring island nations in the region. This has led to increased tensions, especially with Southeast Asian claimant states.

7. Contemporary Tensions:

The troubled waters of South China Sea stand as a crucial conduit for more than $3 trillion in annual ship-borne commerce and ranks among the world’s most significant trade routes. However, recent decades have seen escalating tensions in this region, largely fueled by China’s assertive initiatives. China’s ambitious projects, including the construction of artificial islands and military installations, have significantly reshaped the area’s geopolitical dynamics.

China’s transformation of reefs in the Spratly Islands into fortified artificial islands, complete with military-grade airfields and advanced surveillance capabilities, has not only enhanced its military presence, but also enabled it to exert greater control over the contested waters. These actions have raised concerns among other claimant states, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, as well as the broader international community.

Tensions with the Philippines:

Incidents such as the dramatic standoff between China and the Philippines, where the Philippines accused China’s coastguard of obstructing a Philippine resupply mission, further increase tensions and strain relations between nations in the region. Additionally, collisions between Chinese and Philippine coast guard vessels have resulted in injuries to the Filipino crew members, add volatility in the atmosphere.

In response to China’s actions, the United States and the Philippines are regularly conducting joint military exercises, including simulated combat scenarios, in and around the disputed South China Sea. These exercises, involving thousands of military personnel and supported by international allies like Australia and Japan highlights the deepening defense ties between the US and the Philippines in the wake of growing concerns over China’s assertiveness.

Indonesia’s Challenges:

Beyond Philippines, Indonesia has also experienced tensions with China, particularly concerning fishing rights around the Natuna Islands. Encounters between Indonesian fishermen and foreign vessels, including those from Vietnam, China, and the Philippines, have led to disputes over resources. Additionally, Chinese coast guard vessels’ frequent presence in the area has heightened tensions, requiring a continuous Indonesian coast guard presence.

Further complicating the situation, China’s demand for Indonesia to halt drilling for oil and natural gas near the Natuna Islands, asserting the area as “Chinese territory,” has been met with Indonesian defiance. Here, the Natuna Islands serving as a focal point of contention between Indonesia and China.

Vietnam’s Approach:

Vietnam, like the Philippines, contests China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam’s reliance on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for dispute resolution contrasts with the Philippines’ reliance on US support. While recent agreements between China and Vietnam aimed at resolving maritime disputes show diplomatic efforts, confrontations between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels persist. In a recent incident, Chinese and Vietnamese vessels confronted each other multiple times as a Chinese research ship conducted activities within Hanoi’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), likely conducting a survey.

Malaysia’s Response:

Similarly, Malaysia, another claimant in the South China Sea disputes, maintains a low-key approach to intrusions into its maritime territory to avoid jeopardizing economic ties with China.

A recent patrol by a Chinese vessel in Malaysian waters has highlighted Malaysia’s subdued response to such intrusions, reflecting a strategic low-profile approach. Analysts warn that adopting a more assertive stance could jeopardize Malaysia’s trade and economic interests, potentially leading to tensions in the disputed sea. This approach, while pragmatic, points towards balancing between economic interests and territorial sovereignty. It should also be noted that Malaysia has enhanced security ties and diversified foreign investment to reduce its economic reliance on China.

The prevailing tensions in the South China Sea serve to highlight the inherently volatile nature of the disputes in the region. As these circumstances persist and develop, the imperative for a peaceful and diplomatic resolution becomes more pressing.

Additionally, the international community has expressed apprehensions regarding China’s conduct in the South China Sea. Of particular concern is the potential impact of China’s expansive territorial claims on the principle of freedom of navigation, a fundamental tenet enshrined in international maritime law. Given the South China Sea’s significance as a crucial global trade route, any disruption to freedom of navigation could carry deep economic ramifications on a global scale.

Past disputes and their Impact on Regional Stability

Historically, minor skirmishes often precede larger conflicts, a pattern evident in the annals of history. Within the South China Sea, numerous localized conflicts have punctuated its history, leaving a lasting legacy of tension and distrust among neighboring nations.

The 1988 Johnson South Reef Skirmish serves as a poignant example, wherein the Chinese navy sank three Vietnamese vessels. Subsequent confrontations, such as the 1996 standoff between Chinese and Philippine navy ships in the Spratly Islands, exemplify the region’s volatility. The 2011 Reed Bank Incident, characterized by skirmishes following Manila’s protest against Chinese naval incursions, and the subsequent two-month standoff at Scarborough Shoal in 2012, are clear examples.

In 2014, tensions escalated when Chinese and Vietnamese coast guard vessels collided amid China’s attempts to establish an oil rig in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands. Similarly, the 2019 Sovereign Waters Dispute between China and Vietnam, wherein China obstructed Vietnamese support vessels from accessing a drilling platform within Vietnam’s sovereign waters, exemplified the persistent friction.

Collectively, these incidents have not only damaged trust among the countries involved but have also sparked an arms race as each nation tries to beef up its maritime capabilities. This has only worsened tensions and made it more likely for misunderstandings to occur.

Economic significance of the South China Sea

The South China Sea, spanning approximately 4 million square kilometers, holds significant economic and geopolitical importance. Economically, it serves as a vital maritime route, facilitating an estimated one-third of global shipping, equivalent to $3.4 trillion in trade in 2016, constituting about 21% of global trade. Additionally, the sea boasts abundant resources, including fisheries contributing 12% of the global catch, and reserves of eleven billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, crucial for the economies of adjacent nations.

The region is also a strategic arena for China and the United States, both asserting their interests. Recent maritime confrontations involve not only China and its Southeast Asian neighbors, particularly Vietnam and Malaysia, but also the US and Australia.

A Peaceful Path Forward for the South China Sea

The South China Sea is currently embroiled in territorial disputes that pose a significant risk of escalating into a major conflict, potentially impacting both ASEAN nations and the global economy due to China’s substantial economic influence. Given this critical situation, it is essential for the involved nations to prioritize the development of conflict resolution mechanisms without requiring third-party intervention.

Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) are crucial strategies in the context of the South China Sea disputes. They aim to reduce fear and suspicion among nations by promoting predictability in behavior. For instance, notifying parties before entering contested waters can prevent misunderstandings and accidental clashes, thus fostering a climate of trust and cooperation.

Adherence to international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), provides a legal framework for managing maritime disputes. Upholding UNCLOS is essential for ensuring peaceful navigation along this vital maritime route.

Diplomatic dialogues play a significant role in facilitating peaceful dispute resolution. For example, China and Southeast Asian nations have agreed to conclude a nonaggression pact within three years to prevent territorial disputes from escalating into major conflicts.

International bodies like the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) can be instrumental in resolving disputes. The arbitration between the Philippines and China before the PCA demonstrates the potential efficacy of such mechanisms in dispute resolution.

Regional cooperation is key to achieving peaceful resolutions. The consensus between the Philippines and China on the peaceful resolution of disputes, based on the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea, exemplifies the importance of regional cooperation.

Fundamentally, respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all involved countries is vital for maintaining peace and stability in the region amidst the South China Sea disputes.

Analysis

Why Marcos South China Sea Policy is better than Duterte?

Why Marcos South China Sea Policy is better than Duterte?

The geopolitical landscape of Southeast Asia is characterized by a complex interplay of national interests, historical tensions, and the strategic maneuverings of global powers. In this scenario, the South China Sea stands out as a particularly contentious region, with overlapping territorial claims and significant economic and security implications. As regional dynamics evolve, so too do the foreign policies of the countries involved. In this context, the Philippines has seen a marked shift in its approach from the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte to that of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. While Duterte’s tenure was noted for its conciliatory stance towards China, Marcos Jr. has adopted a more assertive policy, aligning more closely with the United States and emphasizing the defense of Philippine sovereignty. This shift reflects broader strategic calculations in response to China’s growing assertiveness and the need for stronger defense capabilities. The contrast between the two administrations provides a compelling case study in how nations balance between cooperation and confrontation in pursuit of their national interests.

Background: Duterte’s Approach

As the successor to President Aquino III, President Duterte adopted a markedly more cooperative stance toward China, seeking to avoid conflict over maritime sovereignty. Despite the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling largely favoring the Philippines, Duterte refrained from pursuing these convictions aggressively. Instead, he implemented pragmatic strategies rooted in Realpolitik and Rational Choice, shifting Philippine foreign policy from confrontation to a more nuanced approach. He preferred bilateral discussions over multilateral forums and supported China’s Belt and Road Initiative, aligning with his “Back to Domestic; Build, Build, and Build” campaign slogan focused on economic development and infrastructure. Duterte’s inward-looking strategy relied heavily on Chinese economic incentives to enhance the Philippines’ prosperity. This recalibrated foreign policy aimed for mutual benefits: China restrained the Philippines from assertively acting on the PCA ruling, while the Philippines gained economic and political advantages from Chinese infrastructure investments. Duterte’s approach strained the long-standing US-Philippines relationship, reflecting his vision for a multipolar world order and a distinct regional identity. This independent foreign policy garnered global attention and criticism, revealing the complex trade-offs and uncertainties involved. Consequently, the Philippines’ stance on SCS maritime and territorial claims softened under Duterte’s leadership.

Marcos Jr.’ Policy Shift

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has notably shifted Manila closer to the United States, diverging sharply from the path of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. Marcos appears to be the first Southeast Asian leader to decisively choose between the United States and China. Given the Philippines’ precarious position in the South China Sea and China’s growing regional dominance, Marcos Jr. may have concluded that maintaining a balance is no longer feasible and that, in the event of conflict, unwavering support from Washington is essential. The rising harassment of Philippine boats and marines stationed on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal by China has severely infuriated Marcos Jr., with incidents increasing recently.

In response to these challenges in the West Philippine Sea, President Marcos Jr. reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to maintaining Philippine sovereignty and defending its territory. At the 21st International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, he declared, “We will never allow anyone to detach it from the totality of the maritime domain that renders our nation whole.” Marcos emphasized that he has vowed to uphold this grave responsibility since his first day in office, stating, “I’m not going to give up. Filipinos are unyielding.” He reiterated that the government would make every effort to safeguard the Philippines’ territorial integrity in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 Arbitral Award. “International law, not our imagination, is the source of the boundaries we draw on our waters,” he asserted.

Marcos highlighted that the Philippines defines its boundaries based on international law, not “baseless claims.” He outlined the country’s intentions to improve its defense capabilities and strengthen its ties with foreign nations during his keynote speech at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. He emphasized that the Philippines would enhance its ability to safeguard its interests in both the global commons and its maritime domain as part of the Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept. “We will strengthen our ability to safeguard our interests in the global commons and in our own maritime domain as we work to preserve the rule of law in international affairs,” Marcos declared.

He stressed that diplomacy would continue to be a key component of building the Philippines’ defense capabilities. President Marcos also reaffirmed that ASEAN Centrality would remain a fundamental component of the country’s foreign policy. He noted that the Philippines would strengthen strategic alliances with Australia, Japan, and Vietnam, in addition to its relationship with the United States. The country would also seek closer ties with partners like the Republic of Korea and India. Marcos pointed out that cooperative efforts involving a small number of governments with common interests could “build into pillars that support the architecture of regional stability.” He mentioned pursuing trilateral cooperation in the Celebes Sea with Indonesia and Malaysia and expanding collaboration in the exclusive economic zone with Australia, Japan, and the United States.

Over the past year, the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone has been repeatedly targeted by China’s coast guard and allied fishing vessels, further straining relations between the two countries. Marcos stated that he has been in communication with “friends in the international community” and has met with his defense and security officers to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. “They have offered to help us with what the Philippines requires to protect and secure our sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction,” he said.

The deterioration of ties with China coincides with Marcos’s efforts to strengthen defense ties with the US. Beijing is displeased with his expanded US access to military sites in the Philippines and the inclusion of joint exercises involving air and sea patrols over the South China Sea. The US-Philippines treaty obliges both nations to defend one another in the event of an attack, covering coastguard, civilian, and military vessels in the South China Sea.

Key Actions Under Marcos Jr.

Marcos Jr. emphasized Manila’s right to utilize South China Sea energy resources without first engaging China in a statement released on December 1, 2022. He vowed to “fight” for the rights that belong to his country. Given that the Philippines depend largely on imported fuel, his comments highlighted the urgency of exploring for oil and gas in the strategically significant sea. In the face of a more divided Southeast Asia, Marcos Jr. has resorted to striking a balance between his relations with China and the United States. However, sustaining strategic ambiguity is becoming more and more of a difficult balancing act every day. Beijing is applying more and more pressure. Chinese rocket debris was taken by force from the Philippine Navy in November by the Chinese coast guard.

In order to restart the nation’s slow economic growth, the new president desperately had to acquire investments amidst a severe financial crisis made worse by the pandemic. Beijing might be a trustworthy source, but Chinese investments and the sovereignty risks they pose are touchy political subjects. Protests by the general public against Chinese influence are not unusual in the Philippines, and they may pose a threat to the legitimacy of Marcos Jr.’s administration.

Asia’s strictest foreign investment regulations, found in the Philippines, limit foreign ownership in numerous areas to 40%. This restriction complicates potential agreements on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, even if the Philippines and China were to reach an understanding. Although both nations have shown interest in collaborating with non-governmental organizations for joint exploration, disputed claims have prevented Manila’s PXP Energy Corp, which holds exploration permits in the contested Reed Bank, from finalizing a mutually beneficial deal with China’s National Offshore Oil Corp.

The situation is further complicated by increased U.S. engagement with the Philippines. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. allowed U.S. forces access to four additional Philippine military facilities, raising the total to nine. Under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), U.S. troops are permitted to rotate indefinitely for joint training, equipment prepositioning, and infrastructure development, including runways, fuel storage, and military housing. This move aligns with the Biden administration’s strategy of strengthening a regional security network to counter China, as well as with Philippines efforts to enhance its external defense, particularly in the South China Sea.

China reacted strongly to this development, particularly since two of the new U.S. locations are near Taiwan and southern China. Beijing accused the Philippines of providing staging areas for U.S. military operations, thereby compromising Chinese security. In response, Marcos stated that his administration has no plans to grant the U.S. access to additional military bases. He emphasized that China’s aggressive actions in the disputed South China Sea initially prompted the U.S. military presence in several Philippine camps and locations. At a press conference with foreign correspondents in Manila, Marcos clarified, “The Philippines has no plans to create any more bases or give access to any more bases.”

When questioned about whether the presence of U.S. forces had provoked Chinese actions in the South China Sea, Marcos maintained that American troops were there in response to China’s actions. He cited incidents where Chinese coast guard ships used water cannons and lasers to block Philippine vessels. “These are reactions to what has happened in the South China Sea, to the aggressive actions that we have had to deal with,” he stated. China, on the other hand, blamed the Philippines for instigating conflicts by intruding into its territorial seas and violating an alleged agreement to remove an old Philippine navy vessel stationed at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal. Marcos denied knowledge of any such agreement and declared it void if it ever existed.

Marcos emphasized that the Philippines must take more concrete actions beyond lodging protests concerning incidents in the South China Sea. He referred to a recent event where the Chinese coast guard blocked a routine troop supply run to the Second Thomas Shoal, resulting in a serious injury to a Philippine sailor. While Marcos condemned this as an illegal action, he noted that it did not constitute an armed attack. Despite filing numerous protests, he stressed the need for more substantial measures.

End Note

The contrast between the South China Sea policies of Duterte and Marcos Jr. signify the evolving nature of the Philippines’ approach to maritime sovereignty and international diplomacy. Duterte’s strategy prioritized economic gains through cooperation with China, often at the cost of territorial assertiveness and strained traditional alliances. In contrast, Marcos Jr.’s policy shift reflects a robust defense of Philippine sovereignty, reinforced by stronger ties with the United States and other regional allies. This strategic realignment addresses the immediate challenges posed by China’s assertiveness while positioning the Philippines as a proactive player in maintaining regional stability and upholding international law. As the geopolitical landscape continues to shift, the Marcos administration’s balanced yet assertive stance may provide a more sustainable and secure path for the Philippines in the contentious waters of the South China Sea.

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Analysis

Philippines Air Force Joins Multi-Nation War Games in Australia to Counter China

Philippines Air Force Joins Multi-Nation War Games in Australia to Counter China

In an unprecedented move, the Philippines Air Force has embarked on its first overseas deployment in over six decades. This historic event sees the Philippines joining forces with U.S. and Australian fighter jets for combat practice in northern Australia amidst escalating tensions with China in the South China Sea. This strategic maneuver underscores the Philippines’ commitment to enhancing its defense capabilities and strengthening alliances in response to regional security challenges.

The Pitch Black War Games

The Pitch Black war games, a significant international air combat training activity, took place in Australia’s sparsely populated Northern Territory from July 12 to August 2, 2024. This large-scale exercise included four Philippine FA-50 fighter jets and 162 personnel among approximately 140 aircraft and over 4,000 personnel from 20 nations.

This year’s iteration was the largest in the exercise’s 43-year history, exposing participants to complex scenarios utilizing advanced aircraft and battlespace systems. Aircraft and personnel from the Philippines, Spain, Italy, Papua New Guinea, and embedded personnel from Fiji and Brunei participated for the first time, joining aircraft from countries such as France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and embedded personnel from Canada and New Zealand.

Aircraft operated primarily from RAAF bases in Darwin and Tindal in the Northern Territory, with additional tanker and transport aircraft at RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland. Exercise Pitch Black is Australia’s premier activity for international engagement, held every two years to build stronger ties with like-minded nations.

A Historic Milestone

This deployment marks a significant moment in the history of the Philippines Air Force, as the first time since 1963 that it has taken combat aircraft abroad. On July 10, 2024, four FA-50s and 162 personnel from the Philippine Air Force arrived at RAAF Base in Darwin, marking the first-ever deployment of the country’s fighter jets for drills outside the Philippines.

Royal Australian Air Force Air Commodore Pete Robinson expressed his honor at Australia being chosen for this significant deployment, highlighting the historic nature of the event. The decision to deploy four FA-50s instead of the initially planned six was made to retain more aircraft in the Philippines for domestic operational requirements.

The deployment of the FA-50s to the Pitch Black war games demonstrates the Philippines’ commitment to engaging in multinational military cooperation and improving its own defense capabilities. The FA-50s, which are light combat aircraft, are well-suited for training exercises that involve both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat scenarios. By participating in these exercises, the Philippines Air Force can gain valuable experience and insights into modern combat tactics and technologies.

Enhancing Capabilities

The vast airspace of the Northern Territory provides an ideal environment for enhancing a wide range of capabilities, focusing on the tactical execution of large force employment and offensive counter air and land operations in a multinational coalition environment. The war games involve not only dog fighting but also the use of advanced radar and missile systems for long-range engagements.

Philippine fighter jets worked alongside advanced aircraft such as the F-35A Lightning II, EA-18G Growler, and Su-30MKI Flanker, tackling complex problems against simulated adversaries and ground threats. This includes air-to-air refueling, reconnaissance, and airlift operations, enhancing the capabilities of all participating forces to operate together, improve readiness, and strengthen regional partnerships.

The FA-50s’ participation in these exercises allows the Philippine pilots to train in an environment that mimics real combat conditions. This exposure is crucial for building confidence and proficiency in handling advanced aircraft and executing complex missions. The experience gained from these exercises will be invaluable in guiding the Philippines’ ongoing military modernization efforts.

A United Front

The U.S. F-22 stealth fighter and Australia’s F-35A and F-18 are among the combat aircraft taking part in these war games. The U.S. sent F-22 jets from the 15th Wing based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, to train alongside Australia’s F-35A jets, improving interoperability between their armed forces.

Fast-jet pilots from the U.S. Marine Corps conducted training in offensive counter air, defensive counter air, suppression of enemy air defenses, and strike mission sets during the day and night, demonstrating the depth of interoperability between the two nations.

The collaborative efforts in the Pitch Black war games highlight the importance of interoperability and joint operations among allied forces. By training together, these forces can develop a better understanding of each other’s tactics, procedures, and capabilities. This level of cooperation is essential for effective multinational operations, especially in complex and dynamic combat environments.

The participation of the Philippines in this multinational exercise not only enhances its own defense capabilities but also strengthens its ties with key allies. The ability to operate seamlessly with U.S. and Australian forces is a strategic advantage for the Philippines, particularly in the context of regional security challenges.

The South China Sea Dispute

The South China Sea dispute between the Philippines and China has been a source of tension for many years. The crux of the dispute lies in overlapping territorial claims over the South China Sea, a strategic and resource-rich waterway. China’s extensive claims have led to several direct confrontations, including a clash at the Second Thomas Shoal on June 17, 2024, causing injuries to Filipino navy personnel and damage to military boats.

The encounters between the two nations have grown increasingly tense as Beijing continues to assert its claims to shoals in waters that Manila insists are within its exclusive economic zone. Despite these tensions, both sides have affirmed their commitment to deescalate tensions without prejudice to their respective positions. However, the geopolitical landscape in the South China Sea remains complex and fluid, posing significant challenges to regional stability and international law.

China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, such as the construction of artificial islands and the deployment of military assets, have heightened tensions with neighboring countries, including the Philippines. The strategic importance of the South China Sea, which serves as a major shipping route and is believed to contain significant oil and gas reserves, makes it a focal point of regional and global interest.

China’s Reaction

China’s reaction to the Pitch Black war games was significant. Following the announcement of the exercise, China launched drills in the Taiwan Strait in response to what it perceived as “separatist acts.” These drills involved heavily armed warplanes and staged mock attacks, demonstrating China’s ability to control the seas and prevent foreign involvement.

China’s military maneuvers are a clear signal of its willingness to assert its territorial claims and counter any perceived threats to its interests. The timing of these drills, just days after the announcement of the Pitch Black war games, underscores the geopolitical tensions in the region. China’s actions reflect its broader strategy of demonstrating military strength and deterring foreign intervention in what it considers its sphere of influence.

The Philippines’ participation in the Pitch Black war games can be seen as a response to China’s assertiveness. By strengthening its defense capabilities and engaging in multinational exercises, the Philippines is signaling its determination to protect its territorial integrity and uphold international law. This strategic approach aims to deter potential aggression and contribute to regional stability.

The Philippines’ Defense Strategy

Despite having a mutual defense treaty with the United States, the Philippines is increasingly looking to its own air force and navy as the first line of defense. This shift in strategy is in response to the perceived threat from China, with Manila making concerted efforts to bolster its defense capability.

The Philippines’ defense strategy includes preserving holdings in the disputed sea, deterring coercive actions against Philippine vessels and citizens, and compelling Chinese recognition of and compliance with the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration Award. This multifaceted approach involves strengthening the country’s military capabilities, enhancing regional alliances, and leveraging international legal mechanisms to protect its interests.

In addition to strengthening its military capabilities, the Philippines is forging stronger defense ties with other countries. For instance, the Philippines and Japan recently signed a crucial military agreement permitting the deployment of their forces on each other’s soil, bolstering defense ties between Tokyo and Manila. This agreement, known as the Reciprocal Access Agreement, enhances interoperability and facilitates joint training and exercises, contributing to regional security.

The Philippines’ defense strategy also involves increasing investments in military modernization. The ongoing modernization program aims to equip the Armed Forces of the Philippines with advanced hardware and capabilities to address a wide range of security threats. This includes the acquisition of multirole fighter jets, radars, missile systems, frigates, helicopters, and submarines.

Modernization of the Military

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has embarked on a 15-year modernization program that started in 2012 and will continue through 2027. This program, also known as the Revised Armed Forces Modernization Act, aims to strengthen the AFP’s capability to address counterterrorism and internal threats.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. recently approved a significant military procurement plan, estimated at around $35 billion over the next ten years. This includes acquiring multirole fighter jets, radars, frigates, missile systems, helicopters, and the country’s first submarine fleet.

The modernization program is divided into three phases: Horizon 1 (2013-2017), Horizon 2 (2018-2022), and Horizon 3 (2023-2027). Each phase focuses on different aspects of capability development, with Horizon 3 emphasizing the acquisition of advanced systems and platforms to enhance the country’s defense posture.

Key elements of the modernization program include:

Multirole Fighter Jets: The acquisition of multirole fighter jets, such as the FA-50s, enhances the Philippines’ air defense and strike capabilities.

Frigates and Corvettes: The procurement of additional Jose Rizal-class frigates and missile corvettes improves the country’s naval capabilities, enabling it to protect its maritime interests and conduct various naval operations.

Missile Systems: The acquisition of missile systems, including

surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, enhances the country’s deterrence and defensive capabilities.

Submarine Fleet: The development of a submarine fleet provides the Philippines with a strategic asset for underwater defense and deterrence.

Regional Defense Relationships

The Philippines is actively seeking to establish more regional defense relationships. Recent defense agreements with Australia and Japan indicate a commitment to enhancing interoperability and strengthening defense ties. These agreements contribute to the Philippines’ defense strategy by enhancing its ability to respond to various security threats.

The agreement with Australia, known as the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA), facilitates the rotation of Australian forces in the Philippines and vice versa. This agreement enhances joint training, interoperability, and capacity-building initiatives, strengthening the defense ties between the two countries.

Similarly, the Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japan allows for closer defense cooperation, joint exercises, and logistical support. This agreement reflects the growing strategic partnership between Japan and the Philippines, driven by shared concerns over regional security and the need to uphold international norms.

The Philippines is also engaging in defense cooperation with other countries in the region, such as South Korea, India, and Vietnam. These partnerships involve joint training exercises, defense dialogues, and capacity-building initiatives, contributing to the overall security architecture of the region.

Implications and Future Developments

The Philippines’ participation in the Pitch Black war games is a significant development in its defense strategy, signaling its commitment to enhancing operational readiness and capabilities. This move also underscores the Philippines’ willingness to collaborate with other nations in maintaining regional security.

By participating in these war games, the Philippines is sending a strong message to other countries in the region, including China. This could potentially deter aggressive actions in the South China Sea and contribute to regional peace and stability. However, it could also escalate tensions, highlighting the need for careful management to prevent conflict.

The experience gained from these exercises will be invaluable in guiding the Philippines’ ongoing military modernization efforts. As tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea, the country is demonstrating its commitment to enhancing its defense capabilities and ensuring preparedness for any eventualities.

The Philippines’ strategic approach involves strengthening its military capabilities, enhancing regional alliances, and leveraging international legal mechanisms to protect its interests. By doing so, the Philippines aims to deter potential aggression, uphold international law, and contribute to regional stability.

The future of the South China Sea dispute remains uncertain, with ongoing geopolitical tensions and competing territorial claims. However, the Philippines’ proactive stance and commitment to defense modernization signal its determination to navigate these challenges and safeguard its sovereignty.

In essence, the Philippines’ participation in the Pitch Black war games is a historic milestone that reflects its evolving defense strategy and commitment to regional security. By enhancing its capabilities and strengthening its alliances, the Philippines is positioning itself as a key player in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and beyond.

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Analysis

Philippines Accuses Chinese Ships of Blocking Medical Evacuation

Philippines Accuses Chinese Ships of Blocking Medical Evacuation

I. Introduction

The South China Sea has been a hotbed of territorial disputes for years, with several countries including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei claiming overlapping parts of the maritime region. The area is rich in natural resources and is a vital commercial waterway, making it a strategic point of contention. One such disputed area is the Second Thomas Shoal, known as Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines and Renai Reef in China. The shoal is within the 200-nautical mile (370km) exclusive economic zone of the Philippines but is also claimed by China.

II. Details of the Incident

On July 10, 2024, the Philippines accused Chinese vessels of trying to block the evacuation of a sick soldier from an “illegally grounded warship” at Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippine Navy stated that the patient was taken from the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting vessel that was run aground at Second Thomas Shoal 25 years ago, to Camp Ricarte Station Hospital in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. The Philippine coastguard claimed it had “faced numerous obstructing and delaying manoeuvres” by its Chinese counterpart but “remained steadfast”. This incident marked another escalation in the ongoing territorial dispute between the two nations.

III. Philippine Government’s Response

The Philippine government has strongly condemned the alleged actions of the Chinese vessels. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) lodged a diplomatic protest against China, calling the incident a “blatant infringement of Philippine sovereignty”. The incident has also stirred up nationalist sentiments among the Philippine public, putting pressure on the government to take a tougher stance against China.

IV. China’s Reaction

China rebuked the Philippines, accusing it of “deliberately misleading” the international community. In a statement, the China Coast Guard said it had allowed the Philippines to evacuate the ill person under “humanitarian considerations” and had “monitored and verified” their actions in accordance with the law. Chinese coastguard spokesman Gan Yu stated that the “relevant Philippine parties ignored the facts, maliciously hyped up [accusations], and deliberately misled international cognition”. He affirmed that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the Nansha Islands, also known as the Spratly Islands, including Renai Reef and its surrounding waters.

V. International Reactions

The escalating tensions between China and the Philippines have drawn international attention and elicited responses from various leaders and experts. Collin Koh, a maritime affairs expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, suggests that a second legal defeat for China in the international court would not reflect well on China’s reputation. He believes that the seven years since the last international ruling is a long time, and a new case building on the previous one would inject renewed vigor into global scrutiny of China’s actions in the South China Sea.

US President Joe Biden has warned China that the US will defend the Philippines in case of any attack in the disputed South China Sea. This reiteration of the US’s “ironclad” defense commitment to the Philippines underscores the geopolitical implications of the dispute.

VI. Historical Context

The South China Sea dispute is not a recent development but has deep historical roots. The region has been a point of contention for centuries, with various Southeast Asian nations asserting their claims over different parts of the sea. The modern dispute, however, can be traced back to the 20th century when several nations began to assert their sovereignty over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

The Second Thomas Shoal, in particular, has been a flashpoint in the dispute. The Philippines grounded the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting naval vessel, on the shoal in 1999 to reinforce its claim. China, however, views this as an illegal occupation and has maintained a constant maritime presence around the shoal.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a case against China’s claims in the South China Sea. The court declared China’s “nine-dash line” claim, which covers nearly the entire South China Sea, as having no legal basis. However, China rejected the ruling, and the decision did not lead to a significant change in the status quo.

VII. Analysis

The ongoing dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea has significant geopolitical implications. For China, asserting its claims in the South China Sea is a matter of national pride and a demonstration of its growing global power. It is also strategically important due to the sea’s rich natural resources and its importance as a commercial waterway.

For the Philippines, the dispute is about protecting its territorial integrity and its rights to exploit the resources within its exclusive economic zone. The recent incident could further strain Philippines-China relations and push the Philippines to seek stronger security ties with other countries, particularly the United States.

The involvement of international leaders and organizations like the US, ASEAN, and Japan further complicates the issue. The US, in particular, has been vocal in its support for the Philippines and its opposition to China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea. This could potentially escalate tensions between the US and China, two of the world’s superpowers.

VIII. Conclusion

The South China Sea dispute continues to be a complex issue involving territorial claims, national pride, and international law. The recent incident involving the Philippines and China is just the latest in a series of escalating tensions in the region.

As tensions escalate, it is crucial for all parties involved to engage in peaceful dialogue and negotiations to prevent further conflicts. The role of international law and multilateral institutions is also critical in resolving these disputes and ensuring the preservation of the region’s rich biodiversity.

However, the resolution of the South China Sea dispute is not just about resolving territorial claims. It is also about managing the rise of China as a global power, maintaining regional stability, and upholding the rules-based international order. The way this dispute is handled could set a precedent for other territorial disputes around the world and shape the future of international relations in the Indo-Pacific region.

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