South China Sea Situation: Enhance Multilateral Cooperation to Deter Beijing

China continues to aggressively expand across the South China Sea. To protect the free and open seas, it is important that Southeast Asian nations deepen multilateral security cooperation with countries such as Japan and the United States, leading to deterrence against China.

The Philippine authorities announced Sunday that their patrol vessel and a supply ship, while heading toward a Philippine military outpost on the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, were rammed into by a China Coast Guard ship and another Chinese vessel. Although China also claims territorial sovereignty over the shoal, the Philippines has effective control of it.

Manila condemned “in the strongest degree the latest dangerous, irresponsible, and illegal actions” done by Beijing “in violation of Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction” and international laws.

The South China Sea hosts important maritime routes and ensuring its stability is of common regional and global interest. Provocations that could lead to unforeseen situations are unacceptable.

With regard to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the Permanent Court of Arbitration completely denied China’s claims of sovereignty over the sea in its 2016 ruling. The problem is that Beijing has been ignoring the ruling and is increasingly trying to turn the area into its military bases and exercise effective control there.

China installed a 300-meter-long barrier with a string of buoys in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing effectively controls. However, Scarborough Shoal is situated within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. Manila removed the barrier, claiming that it was in its sovereign waters.

In waters in Japan’s EEZ around the Senkaku Islands as well, it was confirmed this summer that China had installed a buoy, ostensibly for maritime surveys. It is obvious that Beijing, which claims territorial rights to the Senkakus, is trying to make its claims established fact.

Tokyo is demanding that Beijing remove the buoy immediately, claiming that “the installation of a structure in our EEZ without our consent violates relevant provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.” If China does not comply with Japan’s demand, removing the buoy as the Philippines has done should be considered.

To maintain the maritime order, it is important for the United States and its allies such as Japan, Australia and South Korea, as well as Southeast Asian nations, to strengthen cooperation and enhance deterrence.

The joint military exercises conducted by Indonesia and the United States in August through September as well as the joint U.S.-Philippine naval exercises this month were also participated in by other nations including Japan and the United Kingdom. Each of the drills were at their largest scale ever.

This can be said to be evidence that many countries share concerns about China’s coercive behavior. Beijing should realize that its behavior has resulted in bringing together relevant nations and should exercise restraint.

China has started to show a softening in its stance toward the United States in preparation for the realization of a meeting between the U.S. and Chinese presidents in November. Unless Beijing changes its current coercive behavior, however, it is unlikely to achieve the desired results, such as for Washington to ease trade restrictions on Beijing related to advanced technologies.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 24, 2023)