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Sunday, May 20, 2012

What's Going on in the South China Sea?

I've referenced numerous articles concerning the standoff between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, including that this is part of a bigger picture of China flexing its muscles to gain more control over the natural resources (primarily oil) that underlay the South China Sea and the vital sea lanes. Today, the Philippine Star reports that 5 Chinese ships have been deployed near the shoals, although they are still in international waters. The article suggests, however, that they may be there to support the Chinese ships actually in the shoal.

This article from the Diplomat discusses the larger picture, including that the dispute over the Scarborough Shoal is merely the prelude to further conflicts in the region. It notes:
The active flashpoint today is in the Scarborough Shoal, located in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea. It’s a chain of reefs and rocks claimed by China, the Philippines, and Taiwan. China is accused of using its superior force to assert ownership of the territory. Its decision to dispatch oversized quasi-civilian boats near the shoal is interpreted by many Filipinos as an act of bullying and aggression.

But the main conflict in the region involves the resource rich Spratly Islands, which are being claimed by six countries: China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Tension is permanently high in the area because of the military posts established by the claimants. If the dispute isn’t resolved diplomatically today or in the near future, it could potentially trigger a broader conflict in the Asia-Pacific.
Whether it was planned, or just an opportunity that presented itself, I think the Scarborough Shoal was, or became, both a matter of China flexing its muscles in order to intimidate its weaker neighbors, and a test to see how the U.S. would react. Unfortunately, we do not know the full reaction from the U.S. Certainly, the incident did not cause the U.S. to back down on going ahead with previously scheduled joint military exercises with the Philippines, and appears to have strengthened military ties between the U.S. and the Philippines. As the article from the Philippine Star noted, American submarines were patrolling in Philippine waters.

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