Tumult in the South China Sea

The territorial disputes in the South China Sea haven’t gotten any quieter. If anything, there’s a significant risk of the region becoming a bigger problem than it has to be.

These days, President Trump’s order to retaliate against the chemical attack on civilians in Syria through a military strike is on the front page of every news medium. However, there is a cold yet equally as volatile conflict going on in a different part of the world: the South China Sea.

On April 6th, 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines moved Filipino military troops to the islands claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea, which consist of about 50 islands and reefs in the Spratlys, nine of which the country is currently occupying. Tensions are high in the region as the major stakeholders in the region – Vietnam, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, and Brunei – react to the Philippines’ bold move, particularly China.

Over the past few years, China has been asserting its authority in the South China Sea by converting natural reefs and shoals into artificial islands for both military and civilian use. China has already nearly completely transformed the once-untouched Fiery Cross Reef into an airbase, with 200 Chinese troops present on the island in 2014 and that number has most likely increased greatly to accommodate both more troops and support forces.

Fiery Cross Reef
PC: Center for Strategic & International Studies / Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

Furthermore, according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, “China appears to have built significant point-defense capabilities, in the form of large anti-aircraft guns and probable close-in weapons systems (CIWS), at each of its outposts in the Spratly Islands…It now seems that these structures are an evolution of point-defense fortifications already constructed at China’s smaller facilities on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson, and Cuarteron Reefs.” This indicates a sharp increase in a Chinese military presence in the South China Sea, with Chinese warships already seen in the area conducting patrols at a near point-blank range to warships from the United States doing the same.

President Duterte’s resolute desire to firmly maintain the Philippines’ claim of islands in the region has not changed; according to CNN, Duterte stated that “We tried to be friends with everybody but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control. And I have ordered the armed forces to occupy all these…” whilst on a visit to Palawan Island. This indicates Duterte’s ambition to follow China’s example of militarization in the region, as he has suggested that the Philippines forcibly reinforce its territorial claims in the South China Sea by erecting buildings on the disputed islands, both military and civilian.

Filipino Military.jpeg
PC: Reuters / Ritchie B. Tongo

Many maritime law and strategic experts following the dispute in the South China Sea have stated that it is inevitable for at least one nation in the region to respond to any provocative claims of the islands possibly with force. This may escalate to violence, which is highly undesirable in any scenario by any nation. One can only hope that the nations involved in the South China Sea dispute can come to a reasonable compromise to stabilize and deliver relative peace to the region.

– Daniel Park (’17)

Featured Image: Philstar Global

Sources: https://amti.csis.org/chinas-new-spratly-island-defenses/


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