Xi’s South China Sea ‘fishermen’ risk hooking US into conflict


Chinese friction with Philippines and Vietnam raises odds of miscalculation

The USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, sits anchored near Manila on March 13. The U.S. recently reiterated its pledge to defend the Philippines and keep the South China Sea open. © AP
TAIPEI/MANILA — The chances of an armed clash in the South China Sea appear to be rising fast, even as China paints a picture of regional harmony while it works with Southeast Asian neighbors on a code of conduct for the crucial waterway.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing on March 8 that China and others in the region seek to conclude talks on the code by 2021. Wang said this will provide “stronger safeguards for safety and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and enable China and ASEAN to build trust, manage disagreements, strengthen cooperation and maintain stability.”

Yet Wang did not address the intensifying friction between China and two of its maritime neighbors, Vietnam and the Philippines. Given China’s militarization of the reefs and islands it already holds in the Paracel and Spratly chains and its push to assert control over geographic features administered by others, a conflict in the sea — potentially involving the U.S. — seems to be becoming more of a question of when, rather than if.

In a sign of growing concern in the Philippines, the government has begun to openly question its decades-old Mutual Defense Treaty with Washington. The Spratly Islands to the country’s west have seen a recent buildup of Chinese vessels.

“The Philippines is not in a conflict with anyone and will not be at war with anyone in the future,” Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in early March. “But the United States, with the increased and frequent passage of its naval vessels in the West Philippine Sea, is more likely to be involved in a shooting war. In such a case and on the basis of the MDT, the Philippines will be automatically involved.” The West Philippine Sea is the Philippines’ term for the South China Sea.

Tensions are also rising to the west, around the Paracel Islands. Two days before Wang’s comments, a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near Discovery Reef in the Paracels, according to Hanoi. The Paracels are home to overlapping claims by Vietnam, China and Taiwan. The five fishermen on the Vietnamese boat were eventually rescued, Hanoi said.