The West Philippine Sea, referred to by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the South China Sea, has become a focal point of geopolitical tensions, primarily between China and the Republic of the Philippines. This maritime dispute has wide-ranging implications for regional stability, international law, and the pursuit of economic interests. Locally, our fisherfolks are struggling as Chinese Coast Guard vessels prevent them from their basic livelihood. Nationally, this is a challenge to our sovereignty as a nation against a superpower. As the two nations grapple with conflicting territorial claims and overlapping interests, the world watches closely, concerned about the potential for escalation and the impact on global trade and security.

A Chinese Coast Guard ship uses water cannon on a Philippine Coast Guard ship near the Second Thomas Shoal in the West Philippine Sea on August 5, 2023. Photo: Philippine Coast Guard

Resurgence of a longstanding territorial conflict

In the latest episode of the longstanding territorial conflict in the West Philippine Sea, tensions between China and the Philippines have surged once again. Manila has accused the Chinese Coast Guard of obstructing a Philippine military supply boat attempting to deliver essential provisions to troops stationed on a decommissioned warship grounded on a reef near the disputed Second Thomas Shoal.

The incident unfolded over the weekend, marking another escalation in the ongoing dispute over the resource-rich waters involving multiple nations, including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei. The Philippine military supply boat, carrying vital supplies such as food, fuel, and water, was reportedly met with resistance as the Chinese Coast Guard allegedly employed water cannon tactics to block its access to the stranded troops.

The location of the confrontation, near the Second Thomas Shoal, highlights the strategic significance of the disputed region and the intense competition for control among neighboring nations. The South China Sea has been a focal point of geopolitical tensions due to conflicting territorial claims and the contentious issue of maritime rights.

This latest flare-up underscores the challenges faced by nations in navigating the complexities of the territorial dispute. The incident near the Second Thomas Shoal serves as a reminder of the fragile nature of the situation, with the potential for further escalation and the need for diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful resolution.

As the international community closely monitors these developments, concerns persist about the impact of such incidents on regional stability and the broader implications for global trade and security. Efforts to address the South China Sea dispute continue through multilateral forums, emphasizing the importance of dialogue and adherence to international law in resolving the longstanding tensions in the region.

A Chinese coastguard ship blocks a Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources ship, foreground, as it nears the Chinese-controlled Scarborough Shoal in the disputed West Philippine Sea. 22 September 2023. Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP.

Our perspectives and concerns as a peacebuilding community

The roots of the dispute can be traced back to historical claims and rivalries in the region. Multiple countries, including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei, lay claim to different parts of the South China Sea, contributing to a complex web of overlapping territorial assertions. China’s historical claims, based on ancient maps and references, clash with the Philippines’ adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which delineates exclusive economic zones and maritime boundaries.

Legal Framework: UNCLOS. The UNCLOS, a comprehensive international treaty governing maritime rights and responsibilities, plays a crucial role in the resolution of the West Philippine Sea dispute. While the Philippines brought the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013, seeking clarification on its entitlements under UNCLOS, China refused to participate, rejecting the tribunal’s jurisdiction. In 2016, the tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, declaring China’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim inconsistent with UNCLOS. However, China continues to dismiss the ruling, asserting historical rights and maintaining its territorial assertions.

Map of multiple competing claims in the South China Sea beyond the 12 nautical mile (M) territorial seas measured from the baselines of all States. For clarity, the respective baselines and 12 M territorial seas of each country are not shown. If any one, some or all of the islands within the Spratly, Paracel, or Pratas Islands generate their own EEZ or continental shelf, then a correspondingly large adjacent area of the SCS could also be claimed by the coastal State to which they belong. (“The West Philippine Sea: The Territorial and Maritime Jurisdiction Disputes from a Filipino Perspective—A Primer,” Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, University of the Philippines, 2013.)

Escalation of Tensions. The dispute has witnessed escalating tensions, manifested through militarization of islands, provocative maneuvers, and occasional confrontations. China’s construction of artificial islands and military installations in contested waters raises concerns about its strategic intentions and the potential for a military standoff. The Philippines, on the other hand, faces the challenge of safeguarding its sovereign rights and protecting its national interests while avoiding a direct military confrontation with a more powerful neighbor.

International Responses. The international community has closely monitored the West Philippine Sea dispute, expressing concern about its implications for regional stability. Various nations, including the United States, Japan, and European countries, have urged peaceful resolution through diplomatic means and adherence to international law. Multilateral forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have attempted to facilitate dialogue and promote a Code of Conduct to manage maritime disputes. However, achieving a consensus among the diverse member states remains challenging.

Economic Stakes and Environmental Concerns. Beyond geopolitical considerations, the West Philippine Sea holds significant economic value. Rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas reserves make the region vital for both China and the Philippines. The exploitation of these resources raises environmental concerns, as the fragile marine ecosystem faces the risk of degradation due to overfishing and potential oil spills.

Please pray with us as the West Philippine Sea dispute represents a complex geopolitical challenge with far-reaching consequences. Achieving a peaceful resolution requires diplomatic efforts, adherence to international law, and a commitment to dialogue. The world watches as China and the Philippines navigate these troubled waters, with the hope that a mutually agreeable solution can be found, ensuring stability, economic prosperity, and environmental sustainability for the nations involved and the broader international community.

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