Last Wednesday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario asked China to explain its deployment of a patrol ship to guard disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea. The Chinese patrol ship left Hainan island for the South China Sea on Dec. 27, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. The move by China comes following their formal establishment of Sansha city (and a military garrison) late last year. Sansha city, a remote island 220 miles from Hainan, is administered by Hainan, and was established to further administer hundreds of thousands of square miles of offshore territory and islands that are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China’s move has sparked new tensions over the potentially oil-rich waters, with Vietnam calling it a violation of international law and Washington criticizing China’s potential escalation of tensions.
The patrol ship deployment has been described by the Philippines, a U.S treaty ally, as unacceptable, following statements by Chinese diplomats previously stating Beijing will only assert its claims in waters off its southernmost province of Hainan, according to del Rosario. Given that China claims most of the South China Sea, the Philippines has asked China to specify the limits of the territory it will guard.
Other than asking for clarification on China’s intent, what can the Philippine government do to protect its territorial claims? The Philippine government has in the past taken a bilateral approach in an attempt to patch up strained relations, but have little to show for their efforts. We are likely to see continued Philippine leadership on a multilateral approach, a move opposed by China, which wants to resolve the disputes through bilateral negotiations with each of the claimant countries. The Philippines has taken a lead role at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings this year, attempting to bring together the smaller nations who have territorial disputes with China on a united front, but so far little progress has been made. There are plans, however, for Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, all members of the ASEAN, to discuss the disputes on the sidelines of an annual meeting of the 10-nation bloc in Brunei this year.
For its part, China is unlikely to specify the limits of the territory it will guard, and will continue its policy of patient, creeping nationalization, confident that these small intrusions in disputed territorial waters are not significant enough by themselves to draw international attention and the wrath of an officially neutral U.S. administration. But a negotiated settlement is not out of the question — according to Taylor Fravel of MIT, China agreed to take less than half the contested land in settling 17 of its 23 territorial disputes. In the meantime, look for more minor incursions to help boost Beijing’s negotiating position.