The South China Sea dispute between China and several of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries has brewed for many years, but the recent face-off with Vietnam and the Philippines have made one thing clear: Beijing is becoming more assertive with regards to its territorial claims.
On June 25, 2012, state-backed China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) said in a statement on its website that it would open nine offshore blocks in the South China Sea for joint cooperation with foreign companies.
Seven of the blocks are sited in the Zhongjianan Basin, while two are located in areas covering the Wan'an Basin and the Nanweixi Basin. The blocks--ranging in water depths between 984 feet to 13,123 feet (300 meters to 4,000 meters)--span an area of 61,824 square miles (180,124 square kilometers), CNOOC said.
In relation to Vietnam's coastline, the blocks are 57 nautical miles from the coast of Nha Trang, Khanh Hao Province and 37 nautical miles from Phu Quoc Island, data from the Vietnam Petroleum Association shows. The VPA also provided proof on its website that all the blocks are sited within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. In a heated attempt to drive its point across to the international community, the VPA published a statement on its website on June 30, 2012, which "condemns CNOOC action".
China responded with a concerted launch of four combat-ready patrol ships to the disputed area on July 1, 2012, which only served to heightened tensions in the ASEAN region.
China's new-found assertiveness is especially felt profoundly in the Philippines.
The Philippines, which is also embroiled in a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, said on July 6, 2012, that it is set to acquire new warplanes within two years as part of its strategic defense plan.
Speaking at the 65th anniversary of the Philippines Air Force, the country's defense minister, Voltaire Gazmin, said that the country's military upgrade plan includes the purchase of attack aircraft, lead-in-fighter-trainers, attack helicopters and transport aircraft.
The defense minister's speech came just a few days after President Benigno Aquino said that the Philippines could place a request to the United States to deploy US P3C Orion spy planes over the South China Sea, The Straits Times reported on July 2, 2012.
The weakness of the Philippines military was highlighted when the Philippines got into a standoff with China in April 2012, over the Scarborough Shoal, an outcropping of rocks in the South China Sea that both countries claim territory. The oil and gas resource-rich shoal, said Manila, is well within its 230 miles exclusive economic zone. The Scarborough Shoal is termed Panatag by the Philippines and Huangyan by China.
On June 15, 2012, the Philippines pulled back a Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources survey ship from the shoal, temporarily ending a two-month standoff with the Chinese government vessels also in the disputed waters, Philippine Daily Inquirer reported on July 6, 2012. The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs said that China had committed to withdraw its vessels from the shoal, but it did not, Philippine Daily Inquirer added.
To the Philippines, the Scarborough Shoal incident leaves the same sour aftertaste as an earlier episode known as "Mischief Reef".
In 1994, China occupied the Philippines' Panganiban Reef – otherwise internationally known as the Mischief Reef – located 130 miles from Palawan. The Chinese occupation of the reef occurred during a monsoon season when the Philippine Navy ships were not patrolling the area. After discovering the trespass, the Philippines had requested that China leave. But China refused, and said that it needed to build shelters on the reef for its fishermen. In 1999, the Philippines discovered that China had erected a four-story military garrison, which is still occupied and still stands today.
China has to tread carefully as its recent actions towards its smaller neighbors could lead to a decline in goodwill.
Tommy Koh, chairman of the Center for International Law at the National University of Singapore, summed up ASEAN's sentiments in a published speech on The Straits Times on July 4, 2012.
"As China's power continues to rise, it should be sensitive in its dealings with its smaller neighbors. In China's conducts of its disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, in the South China Sea, it should scrupulously eschew the use of force or the threat to use force," Koh said. "As China grows more powerful, it should learn to speak more softly and exercise its power with great sensitivity," he added.
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