The South China Sea has been a hotbed for aggression in recent years. The issue stems from China’s claim to the waters which border neighboring states such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. While these nations view the nearby waters, and consequently the resources within them, as theirs by sovereign right, Beijing disagrees. Instead, China holds to a ‘nine-dash line’ which includes roughly 90 percent of the sea. This summer, it has sent several ships into the sea to assert its right to the waters, sinking a Filipino fishing vessel in the process. Now it is Vietnam who must defend itself from Chinese excursions.
Last week, a survey ship was spotted off the coast of Vietnam. The Vietnamese government promptly and repeatedly demanded that China remove it from what it considers its exclusive economic zone. This area is defined by the United Nations as coastal water extended from the baseline to 200 nautical miles. Undeterred, Beijing simply responded by asking Hanoi to respect its right to the sea. It was not the first instance of aggression towards Vietnam; earlier in the week, a Chinese-flagged coastguard ship was patrolling the waters in the vicinity of Vietnamese vessels according to Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Over the last several days, the Chinese survey ship, Haiyang Dizhi 8, and its escorts conducted activities in the southern area of the East Sea that violated Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf,” said Le Thi Thu Hang, Vietnamese foreign affairs ministry spokesperson. “This area lies entirely within the Vietnamese waters.”
Vietnam is not the only country to have a confrontation with China recently. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte called on the US for protection after a Chinese vessel sunk a Filipino fishing boat on June 9. As with Vietnam, the Chinese ship was inside the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone, putting the Chinese in the wrong, not only for downing a peaceful boat, but also for intruding upon the territorial waters of the Philippines. The “little maritime accident”, as Duterte referred to it, angered Filipino citizens to the point of them threatening to impeach the president for failing to protect them from Beijing’s attacks.
Duterte taunted them to go ahead with the impeachment so he could have his opponents arrested. From his perspective, the Philippines are not equipped to properly handle the Chinese navy if its excursions turn to armed conflict or war, therefore Duterte opted to not even send his military as a defensive measure. Instead, he publicly asked for America’s support in protecting the fishing and resource rights of the island nation by way of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the two nations.
“I’m calling now America. I am invoking the RP-US pact, and I would like America to gather their Seventh Fleet in front of China. I’m asking them now,” Duterte said.
In the defense agreement, both the Philippines and US pledged to protect one another if attacked. In 2014, the nations signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement which notably was designed to boost maritime security. As part of the additional measures, the Philippines may host US forces at its military bases if an invitation is extended, which Duterte seems to have done.
There is strong support within the Trump administration for defending island nations threatened by China. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised America’s support “so that these incredibly vital economic sea lanes are open and China does not pose a threat to closing them down,” he said. Beyond the economic concerns that stem from a confrontational Chinese approach to the sea, Beijing’s developments in the region threaten the sovereignty and security of other nations, Pompeo elaborated.
China has been extending its presence by building artificial islands, most of which are used as military bases. With each new island established, Beijing’s reach grows longer and the military and economic might of its neighbors could never hope to compare to that of China. The only real solution, barring action in the United Nations which China could shut down as a member of the Security Council, is support from the United States. However, even an increased American naval presence would be neutered as Washington would be unlikely to risk engaging the Chinese in armed conflict, especially as the trade war continues.
“I think the whole world understands that the Trump administration has made a true commitment to making sure that these seas remain open for the security of the countries in the region and the world, open to commercial transit,” said Pompeo.
For a bit of irony, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang responded to Pompeo, telling him that outside nations “should not stir up troubles in the region”, as if China has done none of that itself.
Until this point, there have only been promises of greater US support; none of it has materialized yet, allowing Beijing to continue to steamroll over other nations.