The Second Thomas Shoal is the latest focus of Beijing's carve-up; Asean remains divided as contested maritime territory slips away
Recent tension in the South China Sea over the Second Thomas Shoal indicates rising Chinese assertiveness in its maritime claims. It could also prompt Washington to play a more active role in constraining Beijing’s behaviour in the disputed waters.
On March 9, China’s coast guard stopped two Philippine boats carrying supplies to their troops, who have been stationed in the shoal since 1999. Beijing claimed that Manila was trying to build structures on the reef in an attempt to fortify its claim.
The Second Thomas Shoal is home to the rusting BRP Sierra Madre – a former US tank landing vessel which ran aground on the shoal as a Philippine navy ship 15 years ago. Manila has stationed a handful of its marines aboard the rusty hulk, part of its strategy in the wider geopolitics of the South China Sea. The reef, which is within the disputed Spratly Islands, lies inside Manila’s 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, but is contested by China in its entirety.
China claims most of the South China Sea as marked by its nine-dash line which is contested by five other claimants: Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan. Beijing’s move to block the boats has led to protests from Manila, which are being supported by Washington.
Manila has stated that “Ayungin Shoal is part of the continental shelf of the Philippines and therefore, the Philippines is entitled to exercise sovereignty rights and jurisdiction in the area without the permission of other states”. Manila also claims that it merely rotates personnel and conducts resupply operations for the Second Thomas Shoal, all done by civilian vessels.
The move by China’s coat guard represents an “urgent threat to the rights and interests of the Philippines under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)”, says the Philippine government.
Explaining its move, Beijing said that its coast guard vessels were on routine patrol in waters off the Second Thomas Shoal is on March 9 when they spotted two Philippine-flagged ships. “These ships … were loaded with construction materials,” said Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesperson, before reiterating China’s “sovereignty over the Nansha [Spratly] Islands and their surrounding waters”.
He accused the Philippines of illegally grounding the ship in 1999 on the pretext of a “malfunction”. Besides refusing to tow away the ship, he said, the Manila was now attempting to carry out construction work on the Second Thomas Shoal, which “blatantly violated the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed by China and Asean countries”.
Earlier, on January 27, the Philippines accused China of firing water cannon at fishermen to prevent them from the entering the disputed waters of the Scarborough Shoal. This followed a heated stand-off in 2012 between Beijing and Manila over the Scarborough Shoal. That incident drew much attention to the disputes in the region, which was followed by then US defence secretary Leon Panetta’s speech in Singapore on the US “rebalance” to the region. While Manila withdrew its forces from the shoal, China continues to maintain armed maritime vessels in the region, treating it as its territory.
Slicing the “salami”
Beijing’s provocative behaviour seems to be part of its larger South China Sea strategy of using just enough force to bully smaller disputing nations into submission without attracting retaliatory consequences. What Robert Haddick calls China’s “salami slicing” strategy features “the slow accumulation of small actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change”.
China is slowly taking control of the smaller reefs and islands within the South China Sea, increasing its presence and consolidating its claims. Beijing has refused to adhere to the UNCLOS and brushed away Manila’s attempt to resolve the matter at an international tribunal. Even though Washington is increasingly voicing concerns over the region, it really can do little about Beijing’s refusal to abide by international law given that the US itself is not a signatory to UNCLOS and is often seen breaking international rules and norms when it suits its national interest.
Hence, until there is an actual military conflict between China and one of Washington’s allies, nobody can stop Beijing’s slow accumulation of the disputed South China Sea reefs and islands. Indeed, China is beginning to behave like a great power.
Need for Asean solidarity
Following the Chinese coast guard’s blockade, the Philippines air-dropped supplies to the shoal but it will have to send back the boats to provide the next round of supplies to its marines aboard the Sierra Madre. Washington has reacted strongly to the Chinese action, calling it a “provocative move that raises tensions”, and calling on all parties to maintain the status quo.
Asean members are divided over the sea territory disputes with China, as many enjoy strong economic relationships with Beijing. China is also trying to mend ties with other nations such as Vietnam and Malaysia, but has left out Washington’s allies – the Philippines and Japan – in its charm offensive.
As Beijing’s “salami slicing” gathers speed it is more important than ever for Asean to show it solidarity and stand up to its bigger neighbour, China. As it is unlikely that the disputes will be resolved in the near future, all countries should now vigorously push for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea to avoid any miscalculations and military confrontations.
Darshana M Baruah is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi, and the associate editor of the ORF South China Sea Monitor.