Tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea are on the rise once again, as the United States joins in the fray. The U.S. State Department has called on China to stop its allegedly “provocative and unsafe conduct,” following another maritime confrontation between the two countries. The Philippines accused China’s coast guard of “aggressive tactics” during a Philippine coast guard patrol close to the Philippines-held Second Thomas Shoal, which has been a flashpoint in previous altercations.
Despite China’s claims of sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, an international arbitral ruling in 2016 dismissed those claims as having no legal basis. Nonetheless, the Chinese government continues to hold onto their “nine-dash line” on maps, which stretches more than 1,500 km off its mainland and cuts into the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia.
China insists that the Philippine vessels have intruded into Chinese waters and made deliberate provocative moves, while the U.S. emphasizes that it stands with its Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order. In the midst of all this, the Second Thomas Shoal remains home to a small military contingent aboard a rusty World War Two-era U.S. ship, which intentionally grounded in 1999 to reinforce the Philippines’ territorial claims.
Given the increasing tensions and competing claims in the region, it remains to be seen what the future holds for the South China Sea.