Triumph in West Philippine Sea


Two recent events in the West Philippine Sea have been cause for celebration in the Philippines. The first and most important was the ruling by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration stating that the court has jurisdiction to hear the Philippine maritime claims filed against China over disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea. Two days before the court ruling, an American warship sailed very close to one of the artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea where China had built an airfield.

The two events happened within days of each other. However, it does not seem like there was any direct link. US Defense Secretary Ash Carter had already said that the United States planned to sail “anytime and anywhere” as long as international law justified freedom of navigation.

Why only now?

Geopolitical observers have taken the intrusion of an American warship into China-held territory in stride. The more frequent query is, why did it happen only now? In fact, by refusing to enter the disputed maritime areas, the US may have indirectly encouraged China to build bases in the South China Sea.

This non-action also led to speculation that the US realized that sailing into those waters would be considered a provocation by China; and, the US was not prepared to counter China’s expected aggressive response. The Economist magazine has its own interpretation of the possible change in US policy:

“Before authorizing USS Lassiter’s mission, the Obama administration waited until after President Xi Jinping’s state visit to America last month, perhaps not wanting to sour the atmosphere. That Mr. Xi was so dismissive of American concerns about China’s island building in the South China seems to have prompted Barack Obama to agree to a FONOP [freedom of navigation operation] the Pentagon had been urging for months.”

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China, South China Sea Dispute, Philippines, USA, Spratlys, Artificial Islands, Reclamation, Regular Patrols, Military Conflict, Militarization, ADIZ, Air Defense Identification Zone