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Provocations in the South China Sea

Jan 02, 2024
  • Yang Xiao

    Deputy Director of Institute of Maritime Strategy Studies, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations

On Dec. 9 and 10, the Philippines sent Coast Guard and official vessels to intrude into the adjacent waters of Huangyan Dao and Ren’ai Jiao in the South China Sea. It was a provocative move meant to scale up confrontation and blur the boundaries of what constitutes responsible behavior. It led to collisions between vessels. This is an extremely dangerous policy teetering on the verge of conflict and seriously undermining regional security and strategic stability.

The intrusion by official vessels was a deliberate and serious escalation of the conflict. The Chinese side has been professional and restrained in the waters, and in particular has accommodated the humanitarian replenishment of supplies for the illegally grounded military vessel of the Philippines.

However, starting this year, the Philippines has substantially increased the frequency and scale of replenishment operations in an attempt to complete the reinforcement of the vessel and the construction of permanent facilities. Since December, the Philippine side has taken the initiative to break the status quo by intensifying the operations of military vessels and has sent its Coast Guard and fishery vessels to storm Huangyan Dao and Ren’ai Jiao, thus escalating the confrontation to the excessively dangerous level of paramilitary operations, an extremely irresponsible escalation of the crisis.

The United States is behind the Philippine brinkmanship. Since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict broke out in October, the credibility of U.S. security commitments to the Philippines has been seriously undermined. The Philippine authorities are keen to test the strength of U.S. commitment, and intense discussions have provoked speculation. To maintain its hegemony and alliance system, the United States has stepped up its support for provocations by the Philippines in the South China Sea. On Dec. 4, the U.S. directly dispatched its littoral combat ship to the waters of Renai Jiao to provide support. The irresponsible behavior of the U.S. side has greatly emboldened Philippine authorities in their ill-intentioned attempts to escalate the situation and has planted the seeds of the intensive incidents that followed — a serious departure from the U.S. commitment to stabilizing the situation.

China's calm, restrained and professional approach reflects the consistent position and conduct of a responsible major country. In the face of the deliberate provocations and escalation of conflict by the Philippine side, China has taken strong actions and handled the situation professionally and effectively. In particular, in the face of the provocations by U.S. warships and the obvious escalation of conflict by the Philippines, China did not adopt a reciprocal strategy but rather provided positive and stabilizing input to calm the situation and avoid the escalation towards conflict and crisis.

Regional peace and stability are in the common interest of all South China Sea neighbors. The extraterritorial militarized actions and brinkmanship policy of the U.S. and the Philippines have caused serious damage. Such indulgences will heighten the risk of a slide toward tragic consequences that none of the parties want to see. History is replete with such painful lessons. Responsible, rational action to avoid an escalation of the crisis requires positive action by U.S. and Philippine authorities. 

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