It’s not all quiet in the South China Sea anymore! The Philippines’ largest warship was engaged in a tense standoff with Chinese surveillance vessels in the area on Wednesday after the ship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen.
The crew of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar boarded Chinese fishing vessels for an inspection on Tuesday which were found in vicinity of the disputed Scarborough Shoal, situated more than two hundred kilometers west of the Philippines. The sailors discovered large amounts of illegally collected coral, clams and live sharks aboard one of the Chinese ships.
Two Chinese maritime surveillance ships then approached and positioned themselves between the Gregorio del Pilar and the fishermen. “There’s a standoff,” said a spokesman for the Philippine ministry of foreign affairs. According to the Chinese, the “marine surveillance ships are in this area fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese maritime rights and interests.”
For good measure, Beijing added that the shoal “is an integral part of the Chinese territory and the waters around it, the traditional fishing area for Chinese fishermen.” Manila similarly insists that the shoal, which is really group of islands and reefs, “is an integral part of Philippine territory.” A Filipino navy official told the Associated Press that more ships are underway.
The Philippines recently explored the possibility of deepening defense ties with the United States. Standoffs as are occurring this week are the very reason. China’s neighbors regard its military rise warily. They seek an active American engagement to balance against what they perceive to be Chinese bullying.
Some six hundred Special Forces are currently stationed in the Philippines in assistance of local counterinsurgency efforts. United States Navy ships regularly call at Philippine ports but the Americans haven’t had a permanent base in the island nation since they were kicked out of Subic Bay in 1992.
In the South China Sea, China regularly clashes with other East Asian states. Beijing asserts varying degrees of sovereignty over virtually the entire area through which passes a third of all commercial maritime traffic worldwide and half of the hydrocarbons destined for Japan, the Korean Peninsula and northeast China.
American attempts at mediation have so far failed to significantly change Chinese behavior and may be unlikely to. The country is facing major demographic challenges as well as resource and water scarcities well into the twenty-first century, compelling it to ensure a favorable balance of power in its backyard and maritime access to natural riches in Africa and the Middle East.