Did China Win the Day in Navy Standoff?
China and the Philippines appear to have diffused a crisis in the South China Sea.
The Chinese fishermen who were engaged in a standoff at sea with Philippine navy ships simply sailed away on Saturday and so did the main Philippine warship. Crisis averted? Not quite.
Tensions flared anew after China deployed a second surveillance ship, along with an aircraft that briefly flew over a Philippine coast guard vessel at the disputed shoal where the Chinese say their fishermen sought refuge from a storm.
Manila accused the Chinese of illegally entering its waters and collecting endangered coral, clams and live sharks near the Scarborough Shoal on Tuesday, northwest of the Philippine islands. Two Chinese navy ships arrived at the scene within a matter of days to prevent the arrest of the fishermen.
According to the Philippines, “The stalemate remains,” even if neither the fishing crew nor the surface combatant BRP Gregorio del Pilar are evidently present at the scene anymore.
Although China may appear to have won the day, its neighbors, certainly the Philippines, will have only more reason to pull the United States into the South China Sea area to balance against what they perceive to be China’s bullying tactics.
China couldn’t give in without undermining its borders claims — allowing its citizens to be arrested by the Philippines for fishing in “their” waters — but it could have negotiated their release rather than giving the Philippines no alternative to either losing face or risking a skirmish.
Since the Philippines have lost face, there is an impetus for them to seek a more powerful American engagement in the region.
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. Don’t be surprised if that soon changes.