Will China-Philippines tensions make other South China Sea claimants more likely to speak up?

A clash between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea last weekend will make Southeast Asian nations a little anxious but it may make some governments more likely to speak up against Beijing’s actions if tensions escalate, observers said.

Chinese coastguard ships intercepted and fired water cannons on August 5 to warn off a Philippine vessel that was carrying supplies for Filipino troops stationed at the Second Thomas Shoal in the contested Spratly Islands.

Manila summoned the Chinese envoy to the Philippines over the incident and called China’s actions “illegal” and “dangerous”, while its long-time ally the United States said the actions directly threatened regional peace and stability.

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China said it had implemented “necessary controls” to stop the Philippine ships, and that Beijing had “indisputable” sovereignty over the Spratly Islands.

It also claimed that the Philippine ships had “disregarded China’s repeated dissuasion and warnings and attempted to transfer construction materials used for maintaining and repairing the ship, which has been grounded on the shoal illegally”.

The Second Thomas Shoal is controlled by Manila but also claimed by Hanoi, Taipei and Beijing, which also claims the resource-rich South China Sea waterway almost in its entirety.

A Chinese Coast Guard ship launches what it says is a warning water cannon spray in the direction of a Philippine vessel as seen in a screen grab from a video released on August 8. Photo: China Coast Guard alt=A Chinese Coast Guard ship launches what it says is a warning water cannon spray in the direction of a Philippine vessel as seen in a screen grab from a video released on August 8. Photo: China Coast Guard>

Collin Koh, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, said the Philippines’ neighbours were likely to have watched the incident unfold with some unease against a backdrop of repeated stand-offs between Beijing and Manila.

“[Southeast Asian countries] will certainly view that as something quite worrisome and see it as an uptick in tensions that seem to have built up,” said Koh, who specialises in naval affairs in the Indo-Pacific. “They view that as potentially impinging upon regional peace and stability.”

In February, Chinese coastguard ships directed lasers at a Philippine vessel and disrupted a supply mission. More recently, vessels from the two countries nearly collided.

Last weekend’s incident was the first time since 2021 that China’s coastguard had used a water cannon against a Philippine resupply mission to the Second Thomas Shoal.

Greg Poling, director of the Southeast Asia programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the incident and the overall “rise in Chinese coercion … makes everyone in the region nervous”.

But the anxiety, he suggested, would be much more immediate for other South China Sea claimants in the region, from Malaysia to Indonesia and Vietnam.

These countries have in recent months appeared to be more cautious about China’s actions in the disputed seas.

Manila now had plans to sign a maritime cooperation pact with Hanoi, and Indonesia had undergone a major shift within its security services after the Chinese coastguard “dangerously harassed” Indonesian oil and gas operations some two years ago, according to Poling.

“If China continues to ratchet up pressure, and especially if it causes a threat to the lives of Filipino mariners, I expect some Southeast Asian parties – Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, potentially a future Thai government – could feel compelled to speak up more forcefully,” he said.

Thomas Daniel, a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, said claimant states “ought to be worried”, noting that Malaysian and Vietnamese stations – like the Philippines – also relied on resupply runs.

The response of Southeast Asian countries would largely rely on their interests in the South China Sea and their relationship with China, he added.

Koh from RSIS said most, if not all, Southeast Asian countries were likely to remain silent on the incident or stick to the refrain that they were monitoring the situation, for fear of appearing to take sides and being “embroiled in what seemed to be a very unnecessary problem”.

There was also a fear of repercussions from China, which remains a key trading partner for many of the region’s economies.

Any continued silence from Southeast Asian countries, and especially claimant states that had experienced some form of aggression from China, would be “both telling and damning”, Daniel said.

“Perhaps this is a reflection of a real fear of escalation dominance by Beijing, which no claimant state can ever hope to counter,” he said.

“Worse still, perhaps Hanoi and Putrajaya [Malaysia] have been slowly, reluctantly, but successfully conditioned by Beijing to keep their heads down, in the ultimately doomed hope of biding one’s time.”

Beyond that, the recent stand-off could also prompt countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to question whether they should still trust China in negotiating a code of conduct for the South China Sea, said Aristyo Rizka Darmawan, an international law expert at the University of Indonesia.

China and Asean last month completed the second reading of a much-delayed code of conduct, which would be a legally binding document to regulate behaviour in the disputed waterway.

Darmawan, whose research focuses on maritime security in Southeast Asia, said it was important for claimant states to stand behind the Philippines and put pressure on China to not escalate tensions if Beijing was committed in the negotiations.

“Otherwise, this shows that China is not trustworthy on any mechanism and therefore there is no point in the negotiation of code of conduct if China does not commit to keeping peace in the area,” he said.

While most countries in Southeast Asia would have viewed last week’s incident with some anxieties, Koh said some might see it as a “welcome development”.

“Not to say that they welcome tensions but I think what they saw … was a somewhat interesting phenomenon where there are more countries in Southeast Asia who are more willing to speak up against China and, in a way, hoping that at least it might have some positive impact of moderating Chinese behaviour from now on,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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