Back in early April, a Philippine navy frigate tried to arrest Chinese fishermen accused of poaching sharks and giant clams.
But more is at stake than a boatload of seafood.
Neighboring countries say confrontations like this are growing as China asserts claims to territory well beyond its coastline. And analysts think China is testing America’s resolve in the region.
Philippine officials say China still has more than 30 boats in the contested area, which is widely known as Scarborough Shoal, though the Chinese call it Huangyan Island.
It’s a chain off reefs, rocks and small islands about 150 miles from the Philippines. And they are more than 600 miles from the nearest Chinese province, Hainan Island.
The confrontation over Scarborough Shoal is part of a broader trend in recent years, with more and more Chinese vessels sailing closer and closer to the Philippine mainland, says Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban, who runs the Philippine armed forces’ Western Command.
“Before we only used to see transport vessels, now we can see frigates,” says Sabban, and the reason, he adds, is that the South China Sea contains oil and gas.
A Competition For Resources
The Chinese, Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations are looking to extract as much as they can, and militarily, China is in the strongest position.
The country’s rapid economic growth has allowed the government to invest heavily in its navy.
“China has been building up its armed forces. This has caused alarm in the region, especially to the smaller countries,” Sabban says. “We are not asking for more. We are defending water we have claimed since 1947.”
However, Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, says China has claimed most of the South China Sea for decades.
What China’s neighbors see as muscle flexing, Shen says is just a long overdue enforcement of old Chinese claims.
“Now, we are more able to police our traditional, sovereign water. We will be more able to dispel the aggressive behavior of Vietnam and the Philippines,” he says. “China actually feels like a victim to a certain extent.”
Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, who runs the International Crisis Group’s office in Beijing, says this Chinese attitude is potentially dangerous.
“Because when you are a large country, like China, that all the countries around you are afraid of, then it sets up for all sorts of potential disputes in the future,” says Kleine-Ahlbrandt, whose group is an independent organization that tries to prevent and resolve deadly conflict around the globe.
Kleine-Ahlbrandt says China’s push into the South China Sea is especially complicated because it involves 11 different government agencies with different agendas.
They include, she says, the Chinese navy, which has used disputes to help boost its budget. There are also state-owned oil companies and local governments, which encourage fishing fleets to sail farther to boost their catches.
Aaron Friedberg, who teaches international relations at Princeton, says “it’s not a monolithic, unitary China that has made a rational decision that we are going to get much more difficult. So much as, all of these various powerful actors that have an interest in having a more assertive approach the issue have just simply run with it.”
A Challenge For The U.S.
He sees something additional at work: a quiet test of the United States.
“I’m afraid one of the reasons for this more assertive Chinese behavior that many people in Beijing have come to the conclusion, especially after the financial crisis, that the United States is in decline,” says Friedberg, the author of “A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia.”
He says U.S allies in Southeast Asia will be watching this dispute and future ones to see if America is committed to the region.
“Which gives them some backbone in standing up to Chinese demands, or, to the contrary, whether people come to the conclusion that we don’t have the resolve, we don’t have the resources and that maybe, in the long run, we’re not going to be around,” he says. “I think that’s very much an open question in the minds of many people in the region right now.”
The U.S. has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has said she views the Scarborough Shoal stand off with deep concern and has called Chinese claims excessive.
But she has also said the U.S. is not taking sides.