The South China Sea, one of the hotbeds of high tension between Beijing and Washington, is now the scene of an escalation in accusations leveled by the Philippines against the Chinese.
The Manila government has accused Beijing of blocking the operation of two Coast Guard patrol boats in a new chapter of tension between the two countries over the region’s control over the disputed strategic Scarborough reef.
“We condemn in the harshest terms the maneuvers carried out by the Chinese coast guard,” Philippine national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon said Tuesday evening.
He spoke of the actions that took place on April 24 and 25 near the reef, called Bajo de Mansiloc in the country, and said there would be a response to what his country sees as an increase in China’s military presence. In the region.
His comments came a day after the country’s Chancellor Teddy Locsin posted on Twitter that China should get out of Philippine waters – using a dirty word (“Get the hell out of it”). He apologized the next day for the conditions.
It is highly unusual for a diplomat to use profanity against a powerful neighbor, especially when his government, led by Rodrigo Duterte, is seen as moderately pro-China.
Beijing denies having militaristic intentions in the region, but affirms its position of considering 85% of the territorial waters of the South China Sea as being defended.
This shows the level of tension between the countries. In April, Manila accused Beijing of sending a fleet of 200 fishing boats to waters near the region, which would be a challenge to the sovereignty of the Philippines and a harbinger of a military occupation of the whole. rocks and islets.
Scarborough has been at the center of friction between countries for some time. In 2012, the naval forces of the two countries nearly clashed in the region, and Manila took to the United Nations maritime tribunal to challenge China’s claim that the reef is yours – the Communist dictatorship calls it the Huangyan Island.
In 2016, the UN won the cause of the Filipinos, claiming that the rocks do not constitute islands and therefore there is no territorial water around. Beijing does not accept the verdict, but as the United States said the same year that militarization of the site would be unacceptable, it has so far avoided taking such a step.
The region is considered one of the richest in the world in fish, at the center of the Philippines’ complaint: this week, the annual Chinese-imposed fishing veto season in the northern South China Sea began.
The Vietnamese government also criticized the action, which it called a violation of its sovereignty over the Gulf of Tonkin.
Beijing says the measure is designed to protect marine wildlife, but since the waters are also contested by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, critics see a projection of contested sovereignty.
The reason is strategic. The South China Sea, in addition to being rich in fish and hydrocarbons, is one of the main entry and exit routes for maritime trade in the country.
A blockade on the Bashi Canal, which crosses the Luzon Strait that separates China from the Philippines, would threaten the flow of oil to the world’s second-largest economy.
In recent years, Beijing has come very close to Duterte’s autocratic regime, but growing tension between the Chinese and Americans in the context of so-called Cold War 2.0 appears to be pushing Filipinos alongside Washington in the dispute.
As Joe Biden’s new US government seeks to assert itself even more against the regime led by Xi Jinping, the pressure on the Asian giant’s neighbors to take a stand tends to increase. China accuses the United States of unbalancing the game by using values like democracy as a cover for geopolitical interests.
Along with the Taiwan Strait, where Chinese military activity aimed at intimidating the government it considers rebellious in Taipei has grown, the South China Sea is seen with a plethora of naked threads.
The United States and its allies have conducted more naval operations in the region than at any time in recent history.
The Americans maneuvered for freedom of navigation, using international routes the Chinese claim to be theirs, with two groups of aircraft carriers at the same time this year.
The British, on the largest display of naval force since the Falklands War (1982), send their new aircraft carrier with a small fleet to the region.
And this week, Japan and Taiwan conducted the first joint Chinese vessel surveillance exercise in the South China Sea – where Taipei has a few islets, which it sees as the primary target in the event of an attack from Beijing.
China, for its part, has announced that it will ship its new aircraft carrier, the Shandong, for the first time for exercises in the South China Sea. Commissioned in 2019, the ship is the second of its kind in the country and the first to be built there, based on a Russian project.
Added to this move is Australia’s renewed hostility towards China. The island press this week published a speech attributed to a major general in which he told his subordinates that a war with the Chinese is likely.
The Canberra government has also announced that it will revise an agreement signed in 2015 that granted the operation of the Darwin port in the north of the country to a Chinese company for 99 years. The site is strategic, facing the entire region of potential conflict, and frequently used by amphibious units of the US Marines.
The confrontation takes place as part of the reinforcement given to Biden at Quad, the group of allied nations against China in the region, which unites the Americans with the Australians, Japanese and Indians – the latter were in fact in a bloody skirmish with soldiers from Beijing a disputed area in the Himalayas in 2020.
Analysts believe that a US conflict with China in the coming years is unlikely, but the risk exists, especially of some escalation due to conflict at crossroads such as the South China Sea.