The devil and the deep South China Sea


Last year, the Philippines brought a complaint against China’s aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea to the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal. The Chinese “were really unprepared for that and were really embarrassed by it”, one of Vietnam’s top experts on Chinese diplomacy told me during my recent visit to Hanoi.

It was a master stroke by the Philippine government. The move put China on the defensive, said another Vietnamese analyst, and was one of the factors that prompted Beijing last year to agree in principle to hold discussions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a code of conduct for the disputed body of water – known in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea, in Vietnam as the East Sea, and in China as the South China Sea.

The budding cooperation between Vietnam and the Philippines is the latest development stemming from China’s aggressive territorial claims in the region. In 2009, China put forward the so-called Nine-Dash Line map in which it claimed the whole of the South China Sea, leaving four other countries that border on the strategic body of water with nothing more than their 12-mile territorial seas.

In pursuit of Beijing’s goals, Chinese maritime surveillance ships have driven Filipino fisherfolk from Scarborough Shoal, which lies within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone. In the most recent incident, the Chinese tried to disperse Filipino fishing boats approaching the shoal with water cannons. Chinese government ships have also reportedly chased off Filipino boats trying to replenish a garrison on Ayungin Shoal in the Spratly Islands.


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