In signs of escalating tensions between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea, Manila’s officials have strongly taken up the presence of Chinese maritime militia ships in what they consider Philippine waters. In fact, the Philippines last month had filed a diplomatic protest over the presence of 220 Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef which is part of Manila’s exclusive economic zone. But China has defended the presence of its vessels in the area, saying that those waters have been traditional fishing grounds for Chinese fishermen for years. However, the Philippines is having none of this explanation and has said it will lodge a diplomatic protest for every day the Chinese vessels remain in the area.
China’s tactics in the South China Sea are quite apparent. Beijing believes it can use its military-diplomatic heft to push its extravagant claims in the contested waters. It is counting on the fact that no regional state will want to engage in a direct confrontation over the matter. After all, such conflict will have devastating consequences and serve as a deadly blow for regional economies. And China, given its size and resources today, is likely to prevail in any military-type scenario over its Southeast Asian neighbours, albeit not without incurring considerable costs of its own.
Coming back to Whitsun Reef, China has been insisting on traditional fishing rights in almost all areas of the South China Sea. Again, Whitsun Reef is in the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as it is located 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza town in the western Philippine province of Palawan. Therefore, China has no locus standi here. Besides, Article 51 of UNCLOS stipulates that the terms and conditions of exercise of traditional fishing rights, including the nature, extent and the areas to which they apply, shall be regulated by bilateral agreements between the countries involved. That clearly isn’t the case here between the Philippines and China as Manila sees the presence of Chinese vessels as an intrusion.
But China’s claims over the South China Sea aren’t new and have been around at least since the late 1940s. Although it is only in recent years that China has actually tried to enforce its claims over all of the South China Sea region through aggressive island building and militarisation, unilateral fishing and exploration activities, and harassment of vessels belonging to other claimant nations.
In essence, China is like the teenager who has suddenly grown muscles and feels like flexing them all the time. And that’s precisely what we are seeing in the South China Sea. But there is also another reason why China is on a hyper nationalist overdrive. And this is related to the current political and socio-economic changes taking place inside China. As I have written before, current Chinese President Xi Jinping has embarked on a massive centralisation project to reinforce the authority of the Chinese Communist Party. The latter, according to him, was fraying given China’s capitalist market-oriented growth over the last three decades which had created multiple power centres within the party. This, Xi believes, would have eventually led to splits or downfall of the party. And in order to prevent this and essentially save China from the fate of the former USSR, Xi has undertaken massive purges and reorganised most of the organs of the party-state structure.
In fact, amendments made to China’s constitution in 2018 clearly highlighted Xi’s desire to merge party-state institutions and centralise all power, authority and leadership in the Communist Party of China. But such a project is bound to create enemies for Xi both within and outside the party. And not all dissent can be snuffed out without parallel support for the party’s policies. And this is where Xi’s Great China dream and territorial claims come in. Essentially, China today is in expansionist mode because it serves as a cover for internal political changes. In other words, Xi is using nationalism to generate support for his centralisation project which he believes is necessary for the survival of the party. Seen in this context, the South China Sea issue is a convenient tool for Xi to push nationalist buttons knowing full well that most of the nations of South East Asia are economically dependent on China and don’t really want to risk a military confrontation with Beijing. And if Xi can show that under his leadership China is really enforcing its historical claims on the region it will be counted as a strategic win for him and his policies.
Thus, the only way out for South East Asian countries is to pile economic pressure on China. And for that they need a new economic compact with the US. This is precisely why reviving the original Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement with the US in it is so important. It will give Asia-Pacific nations economic leverage against China. And that in turn can put pressure on Xi’s leadership and even encourage alternative voices in the party. The latter is our best bet against China’s aggressive tactics.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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