The standoff between China and the Philippines over Huangyan Island has lasted for nearly a month and there are no signs of a compromise. Compared to other conflicts in the South China Sea region in recent years, this one is quite different and has the potential to escalate.
The major difference is that the Philippines dispatched a warship to deal with Chinese fishermen. Such military action targeting foreign civilians is appalling and obviously cannot be accepted by any country.
Another difference is possible escalation of the matter. A likely next stage following clashes between the Philippine warship and civilian Chinese Marine Surveillance vessels is for the Chinese Navy to join the standoff. That could lead to a grave crisis.
A third difference is the sensitive time when the standoff happened. It almost coincided with joint military exercises between the U.S. and the Philippines. Also, there was a scheduled two-plus-two dialogue between the U.S. and the Philippines on April 30. A little later on May 3, the fourth round of the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue was scheduled. All of these contributed to the complex environment in which the standoff occured.
The incident reflects major change in the South China Sea dispute, taking it into a new phase after a relatively tranquil 2011. It appears likely there will be stronger action from all claimants to safeguard their rights and interests. There is also an emerging military factor.
Such aggressiveness from the Philippines has been neither expected nor seen in the past. And it strived overtly to draw the U.S. into the dispute. Even before the standoff, the Philippines tried to push a united stand within ASEAN on the Code of Conduct to out manoeuvre China in future diplomatic negotiations. It was opposed, however, by many member nations.
China displayed during the standoff its steadfastness in protecting its sovereignty. It has to take such action in the face of unilateral exploitation and defiance in disputed waters by the likes of Vietnam and the Philippines. For example, it announced for the first time tourism development initiatives in the Paracel Islands in April, a sign of actively confronting unilateral development by other claimants.
It is clear that a military factor is emerging. The Philippines has decided to build up its navy and has called on the U.S. for more military assistance and arms sales. Vietnam, another major claimant to territories, has also speeded up its military modernization in recent years. On top of expanded military cooperation with countries like the U.S. and India, it started military conscription again last June, the first time since the 1979 war with China. And with the hint of military friction during the Huangyan Island standoff, some international media are staring to pay more attention to potential conflicts in the South China Sea.
These changes, plus disagreements surrounding formulation of the Code of Conduct, may lead to more uncertainty in coming few years. Furthermore, the U.S. is starting to refocus its efforts in the region, making the situation potentially more complex and volatile.
Since U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2010 that “the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea”, the role of the U.S. has been notable surrounding the recent event. And except for reaffirming Clinton’s words, the U.S. took no substantial role in influencing the Philippines’ dispute. But because of its rebalancing foreign strategy in the region, its limited involvement gradually changed the outcome.
Through its rebalancing strategy, the U.S. has strengthened remarkably its investment in the Southeast Asia region. This is especially evident in its military arrangements that involve transferring Marines from Japan to Australia and the Philippines. It is advancing the deployment of Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore and is also increasing military cooperation with countries like Vietnam.
It is hard to say whether these actions are totally aimed at intervention in the South China Sea dispute. But they actually make the Philippines and Vietnam feel supported, while making China more suspicious and even threatened. Just as some Americans take the South China Sea dispute as a test case for China’s declared commitment to peaceful development, more and more Chinese view the U.S. role in this dispute as a test case about how the U.S. will accommodate China’s rise.
In this context, how China and the U.S. interact in the South China Sea issue will be very important for the Sino-U.S. relationship. The Huangyan Island standoff is especially a crucial test. Currently, it is important for the U.S. not to send out wrong signals and to avoid any actions which may lead to escalation. In the end, the South China Sea dispute can only be resolved by the claiming parties. Any intervention from outside actors can but add complexity.
China understands U.S. concerns about the freedom of navigation in this maritime area. In reality, China respects and safeguards legal navigation at all time. But combining the freedom of navigation with maritime disputes artificially will harm the common interests of both countries, the most important of which is a stable maritime region supporting freedom of navigation.
China will face more challenges when safeguarding its interests in disputes in the South China Sea. It still holds onto the principal of seeking to solve disputes through peaceful and diplomatic means. But it is also important to hedge against unexpected scenarios such as the current standoff and to prepare for the worst.
Li Yan is a scholar from the Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). His fields of research include military and security affairs concerning the U.S. and Sino-U.S. relations