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Explained: Why Chinese vessels in Whitsun Reef has Philippines scrambling ‘Sovereignty Patrols’

China's aggressive expansion in the South China Sea has found a new ground, Whitsun Reef, where 220 Chinese vessels are currently moored though the area, which comes under the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

Written by Nandni Mahajan , Edited by Explained Desk |
March 31, 2021 9:29:42 am
China Philippines dispute, South China Sea dispute, Chinese vessels in Philippines, Whitsun Reef, Indian ExpressSome of the 220 Chinese vessels are seen moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, on March 7, 2021. (Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea via AP)

Once again, the South China Sea finds itself closer to becoming a security flashpoint amidst rising concerns over a military conflict. China’s aggressive expansion in the region has found a new ground, Whitsun Reef, where 220 Chinese vessels are currently moored though the area, which comes under the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). China, which claims the reef under their nine-dash line, says the vessels stationed since March 7 and are fishing boats seeking refuge during bad weather and not Chinese maritime militia as reported.

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The Philippine Coast Guard, however, is not shying away from taking a hard stance. Currently, Philippine military aircrafts and navy are monitoring the situation daily, and China has been warned that there will be an increased military presence to conduct ‘sovereignty patrols’. The Philippine defense secretary said, “We are ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines.”

If China is successful with its moves, the Philippines may lose another fishing ground, similar to what happened in 2012 when China took control of Scarborough Shoal.

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In 2020, at the height of the global pandemic, China has been accused of exploiting the crisis to advance its actions in the region. In April last year, China sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel and also disrupted Malaysian oil exploration. This prompted the United States to deploy aircraft and navy vessels to assess the situation. The present situation is already grave and international involvement will lead to increased hostility.

The story so far

China and the Philippines, along with other Southeast Asian countries, have long been part of disputes over sovereign claims over the region’s islands, reefs and seabeds. A third of the world’s maritime trade travels through the South China Sea annually. The seabeds here are believed to be reserves of oil and natural gas while being home to fisheries essential for the food security of millions in South Asia.

Majority of the disputes concern the lack of adherence to the international ‘Exclusive Economic Zones’ which stretch up to 200 nautical miles from the coast of any state. China, especially, has been notorious for disregarding the law on various occasions.

China Philippines dispute, South China Sea dispute, Chinese vessels in Philippines, Whitsun Reef, Indian Express Chinese vessels anchored the Whitsun Reef located in the disputed South China Sea, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. (©2021 Maxar Technologies via AP)

To back their claim to the majority of the South China Sea, Beijing has long citied the ‘Nine-dash line’, based on unverified historical accounts. In January 2013, the Philippines formally led the arbitration proceedings against this claim at the Hague, and in 2016, the court ruled in favour of the Philippines and declared the nine-dash line to be unlawful under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The landmark ruling infuriated China, which rejected it as “ill-founded” and continues to maintain presence in the undisputed territories.

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The Philippines’ response and President Duterte

The Philippine military response seems to be consistent and if things take a turn for the worst, they are likely to receive support from regional and foreign allies, especially the United States. President Joe Biden in an address to Quad countries said the country was going to make China obey the rules. There are also reports that some NATO countries are looking to send warships to the region.

Meanwhile, since taking office in 2016, Philippines President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has fostered warm relations with China based on promises of greater economic cooperation, billions of dollars in trade and loans. However, nothing much has happened on this front.

China Philippines dispute, South China Sea dispute, Chinese vessels in Philippines, Whitsun Reef, Indian Express Chinese vessels in the Whitsun Reef. The United States said Tuesday it’s backing the Philippines in a new standoff with Beijing in the disputed South China Sea. (©2021 Maxar Technologies via AP)

After much deliberations, in 2020, President Duterte took a strong and outspoken approach towards the ongoing disputes in the region. In his speech to the 75th General Assembly, he reaffirmed the Hague ruling and will to harden their response. However, critics still look at the President’s words with skepticism as his speech was a sudden change of tone from his earlier dismissal of the ruling in early years of his presidency. The speech itself was lined with a slight soft and diplomatic approach towards the Chinese, as Duterte might be looking to seek infrastructural funding from China.

What does China have to say?

On the present matter, the Chinese have reiterated that the vessels are mere fishing boats seeking shelter from unruly weather, though no bad weather has been reported in the area. It is also unlikely that fishermen would have the financial capital to remain stationary for weeks on end. Experts say through their present occupation, China might be looking to create a civilian base on the reef, an artificial island or even just control the airspace.

China’s Embassy in Manila, in a statement, said, “There is no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged. Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation.” With reports of a NATO intervention, the Chinese Defense Minister is visiting European nations to foster military cooperation.

China Philippines dispute, South China Sea dispute, Chinese vessels in Philippines, Whitsun Reef, Indian Express China says the vessels are fishing boats seeking refuge during bad weather and not Chinese maritime militia as reported. (©2021 Maxar Technologies via AP)

It is widely assessed that President Duterte’s soft approach has further strengthened China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

What next?

While China prefers engaging in bilateral negotiations, its neighbours claim Beijing has an advantage because of its size and global dominance. As the majority of the Southeast Asian countries are members of the ASEAN, China is working to develop a Code of Conduct for the region through the organisation. China has been engaging in economic cooperation with countries in the region to coordinate efforts for oil and natural resources exploration.

The West, on the other hand, feels threatened as it finds China’s approach to be a direct threat to its policies. China’s defiance of international mandates are evidence of its increasing power and weakening of international regimes as they struggle to enforce authority. There is no doubt that China is shaping international law to suit its needs, it has been strategically investing in research and scholarly works to reflect its national interests.

Nandni Mahajan is an intern with the indianexpress.com

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