China v. the Philippines

Philippines summons China's ambassador over South China Sea standoff

The New York Times published an article a few days ago describing the eviction of Philippine fishermen from the waters around Scarborough Shoal by the Chinese coastguard. This is yet another territorial conflict between China and its neighbors. China and the Philippines also dispute the nearby Spratly Islands.

The dispute over the Scarborough Shoal is a bit murkier than the others. Both China and the Philippines claim that they have exercised sovereignty over the area in various ways, going back decades. The Philippines seems to me to have the better argument but I have not looked at the materials closely. Otherwise, the fishing waters clearly fall within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone, as they lie within 200 nautical miles of the mainland (or technically the relevant baselines). Here is an academic article that, however, focuses on the Spratly Islands.

One question that arises is why China and its neighbors are suddenly having so many conflicts that are violent or near-violent. The conflicting territorial claims have existed for decades but violence has been sporadic until recently (aside from the China-Vietnam War). M. Taylor Fravel argues that China seeks to “consolidate” its claims by keeping other countries out of disputed areas. That would explain why China reacts aggressively–by sending in ships and planes–typically after the neighbors pass some law or take other actions that make clear that they consider their claims valid. But why are those countries provoking China in this way, and why now?

As Fravel suggests, China’s strategy is one of delay while claiming that the disputes are unresolved. The neighbors, by contrast, claim that there is no dispute and their claims are valid. China’s strategy thus seems more passive. And the reason is surely that time is on China’s side. China has grown more rapidly than all of its neighbors and looks likely to continue to do so for the near future, at least. As it becomes more dominant–both economically and militarily–its neighbors will be in a worse position to counter its claims in their shared waters.

Thus, it’s in the interest of those neighbors to settle the disputes sooner rather than later–so that they can establish populations and structures on, and acknowledged legal title, to these islands; plus to the minerals and fisheries. China will have difficulty dislodging claims backed by possession and variants of it even when it is considerably more powerful. The question of timing remains hard to answer, but it may be that only recently has it become obvious to the neighbors that China’s economic and military dominance will in the coming years allow it to prevail in any of its legal disputes, and so it is best to get those disputes settled sooner rather than later even at the risk of provoking military conflict.

Map and photo from The Telegraph.