Chinese vessels have been spotted in the waters around Scarborough Shoal, a hotly contested atoll just 140 miles off the coast of Manila, the Philippine capital on the island of Luzon. Details remain sparse, but the presence of survey craft suggests preparations may be underway for China to occupy Scarborough and build a base there.
Occupying Scarborough would send shock waves across an already tense region, and could deal a serious setback to American efforts to portray the United States as a credible counterweight to China. China’s audacious island building campaign has already lifted thousands of acres of sand from the depths of the sea. In response, the United States has asserted its freedom of navigation rights, made critical statements, and strengthened relationships with ASEAN nations. But a more assertive approach will be necessary to persuade China that establishing a permanent military presence so close to the capital of the Philippines will come with significant costs.
The Philippines and China are just two of the six countries that lay claim to the islands, rocks, and reefs that speckle the map of the South China Sea. These overlapping claims to mostly barren land features are driven by a desire to control a region at the strategic crossroads of the 21st century. Over $5 trillion in trade, including roughly one-third of global crude oil shipments, passes through the South China Sea annually. The countries bordering the South China Sea are home to 2 billion people; 500 million live within 100 miles of the coast. The waters are vital sources of food for this coastal population, and portions of the seabed are believed to be rich in hydrocarbons.