Armed clashes loom in West Philippine Sea

by Jojo Malig,

Posted at Jul 25 2012 04:04 AM | Updated as of Jul 26 2012 01:16 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Heightened militarization, hardline nationalism, and countries' refusal to meet halfway to settle their differences over territory in the West Philippine Sea are an explosive mix that could result in armed clashes in the disputed waters of the region, a new analysis by an international group has warned.

While the possibility of a full-blown war between countries remains low, escalating tension between China, the Philippines, and Vietnam can make a sudden turn for the worse, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said on Tuesday.

"The failure to reduce the risks of conflict, combined with the internal economic and political factors that are pushing claimants toward more assertive behaviour, shows that trends in the South China Sea are moving in the wrong direction," the ICG warned in its latest report on the unrest in the waters of the West Philippine Sea.

It said "tensions in the South China Sea could all too easily be driven to irreversible levels" if rival countries do not agree on a mechanism to resolve their dispute. 

"The risk of escalation is high," said the ICG, which advises governments and world bodies like the United Nations, European Union and World Bank on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict.

It reported at least 5 "significant skirmishes" between Chinese and Philippine vessels in the first 5 months of 2011 alone, with one of the most prominent being a standoff between the Philippines and China in March 2011.

The March 2011 incident involved a Philippine vessel conducting a seismic survey in natural gas-rich Reed Bank that was approached by two China Marine Surveillance ships that maneuvered aggressively to force it to leave the area.

It also highlighted the Scarborough Shoal standoff in April that has sent bilateral relations between the Philippines and China plunging.

"The Philippines dispatched its largest warship to investigate sightings of Chinese fishing boats, which prompted China to deploy Marine Surveillance vessels to prevent arrest of its fishermen," the ICG said. "When Manila replaced the warship with coast guard ships, the vessels from both sides engaged in a protracted two-month stare down."

Philippine made wrong move in Scarborough

The ICG said the Philippines' use of a warship to go after Chinese fishermen sent the wrong signal to Beijing.

"The standoff... was not deliberate brinkmanship by Manila. It was, however, read that way by some regional players, including China," it said.

"Beijing saw the incident as allowing it to take full advantage of a mistake by the Philippines to have used force first (by deploying the navy), justifying a robust response to demonstrate China’s willingness to defend its claims to a domestic audience," the ICG said.

"After the incident, Beijing announced that it would continue dispatching administrative vessels to 'serve' Chinese fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal – an indication of intent to increase law enforcement presence in disputed areas. This has weakened de facto Philippine control over the area," it added.

"Chinese law enforcement vessels have remained near Scarborough Shoal and have shown no sign of leaving the area ever since. Some Chinese military experts have dubbed this strategy the 'Scarborough Shoal' model," it said.

The ICG report, however, explained that the deployment of the Philippine Navy's BRP Gregorio del Pilar  frigate was of necessity and not by design.

"Due to the Philippines’ limited capabilities, the navy and coast guard share responsibility for policing the waters," it said.

"Manila later justified its decision to deploy its largest warship to the shoal by explaining that it was already in the area, implicitly recognising that confronting the Chinese fishing boats with a naval vessel had escalated what should have been an issue of maritime law enforcement."

Militarization, nationalism

China and the Philippines have not been involved in an armed conflict over the disputed waters, but Vietnam has suffered deaths at the hands of Chinese naval forces in their clashes over the Paracels, which are also located in the West Philippine Sea.

The ICG, however, believes that military buildup of countries in the region, as well as hardline nationalism, may only add fuel to the growing fire.

"While increased military power is likely to raise the threshold for, as well as cost of, armed conflict, it could also embolden countries to be more pro-active in their territorial claims, making skirmishes harder to resolve," it said.

"There is a risk that in seeking to flex their military muscle, claimant states will engage in brinkmanship that could lead to unintentional escalation."

It said armed clashes are being avoided only because Beijing is still holding back its military to assert its claims and other countries do not want to engage in armed conflict with an important economic partner and major military power.

"Tensions in the South China Sea are unlikely to be abated so long as risk-reducing measures gain little traction," the ICG said. "Domestic pressures have prevented policymakers in claimant countries from making even the slightest compromises in their claims, which would be a precondition to any legal solution."

The latest turn of events in the region's waters involves China's plan to build a military garrison in the Woody Island in the Paracels following the establishment of a city that will manage all of the terrority that Beijing claims.

It has prompted the Philippines to summon the Chinese ambassador to Manila, while Hanoi filed a formal protest with China.

While China's People's Liberation Army Navy was not been on the forefront of the country's push in the West Philippine Sea, the Chinese Defense Ministry said it is now sending "combat ready" naval and aerial patrols to the Spratly Islands.

"In order to protect national sovereignty and our security and development interests, the Chinese military has already set up a normal, combat-ready patrol system in seas under our control," Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said.

'Small-scale skirmishes possible'

The ICG report echoed assessments made by other analysts studying the West Philippine Sea dispute.

Gregory Poling, research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies' (CSIS) Southeast Asia Program, told that although there is little chance of a full-scale shooting war between China and the Philippines or Vietnam, "small-scale skirmishes are not out of the question."

He added that the only reason why China does not want to unleash its military might is because it risks being a pariah in the global community if it attacks other countries claiming parts of the disputed Spratly Islands.

"Beijing knows that it could easily occupy every disputed feature in the South China Sea, but it cannot do so without causing wide and probably irrevocable damage to its interests abroad," Poling said.

Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, also said in a July 2012 report that risks of naval clashes in the region remain high amid "the increased tempo of military operations by some of the claimant countries."

"A conflict in the Spratlys is in no one’s interests: apart from the potential for loss of life, an armed confrontation would upset regional stability and hence economic growth, endanger freedom of navigation," Storey said.

"A military engagement in the South China Sea would undo much of the progress achieved in Sino-ASEAN relations over the past two decades and undermine China’s “peaceful development” thesis," he said.

"Consequently there exists an urgent need for all parties concerned to negotiate and effectively operationalize CBMs (confidence-building measures) that would contribute to a relaxation in tensions, build trust, and reduce the risk of naval confrontations in the South China Sea," Storey said.

Stirring up the South China Sea (II): Regional Responses