The giant and the archipelago: Chinese attack on the Second Thomas Shoal and its implications

The latest clash between the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and the Filipino sailors in the South China Sea on June 17, is testament to the fact that China continues to threaten the region.

“The strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept.” This famous age-old aphorism by Thucydides could not be more true as is evident from the recent confrontation between China and the Philippines. Clashes between China and its neighbors over sovereignty, resources, and security in the South China Sea have been a common phenomena since the 1970s. A “semi-enclosed body of water stretching in a Southwest to Northeast direction” including more than 200 islands, the South China Sea has always been embroiled in conflicts regarding its jurisdiction. Starting from the Chinese attack on the forces of the Republic of Vietnam in the Paracel Islands in 1974 and Fiery Cross Reef in 1988 to China’s military ouster of the Philippines from Mischief Reef in 1995, tensions have been mounting with each passing incident. China’s turn in 2009 toward an assertive, even aggressive approach in its efforts to control U.S. naval activities in the South China Sea resulted in new American attention. China’s claim to a historic right to jurisdiction over the waters of the South China Sea is undermined by overlapping claims maintained by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia as well as Taiwan. Thus it is proved that however long standing China’s claims of jurisdiction in the South China Sea may be, it is not exclusive or widely accepted by other states.

What exactly happened at the Second Thomas Shoal?

The latest clash between the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and the Filipino sailors in the South China Sea on June 17, is testament to the fact that China continues to threaten the region. The clash took place when Philippine forces attempted to resupply marines stationed on a derelict warship at the BRP Sierra Madre (LS57) at Ayungin Shoal (another name for the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea) amid Beijing’s stepping up efforts to assert its claims to the disputed area. China allegedly attacked a Philippines marine vessel with ‘bladed weapons’. China has even been designated as ‘pirates’ by an army personnel of the Philippines. The Philippines’ Defense chief said China deliberately used “aggressive and illegal force” to disrupt a resupply mission in the South China Sea. This “brutal assault” in the South China Sea is a major escalation in a festering dispute that threatens to drag the United States into another global conflict. The incident is the latest in a series of increasingly fraught confrontations in the resource-rich and strategically important waterway as Beijing is stepping up its efforts to push its claims to nearly all of the strategically located waterway.

Prior to this, the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff between the Philippine and Chinese civilian vessels constitutes an arch-typical international incident. China targeted the Philippines in naval brinkmanship. The standoff began on April 8, 2012, when a Philippine Air Force (PAF) reconnaissance plane spotted eight Chinese fishing boats around the shoal. China gained the upper hand as it forced the Philippines to back away from confronting the Chinese civilian presence. China thus forced the Philippines to reconsider before using force to resolve a matter of maritime jurisdiction claiming that those Chinese vessels were ‘in the area fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese maritime rights and interests.’ China also added that the Shoal is an integral part of Chinese territory.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea with its so-called nine-dash line, which overlaps the exclusive economic zones of rival claimants Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While the Scarborough Shoal lies within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), China argues its historical ties to the region, citing evidence of Chinese sailors visiting and mapping the shoal as far back as the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). In 2016, an international tribunal ruled largely in favor of the Philippines in its dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal, stating that China’s actions violated international law. Despite the ruling, China rejected the tribunal’s authority and chose to ignore its decision. The scenes captured in the latest footage of the recent incident shows how China has adopted new and far more openly aggressive tactics that appear calculated to test how the Philippines and its key defense ally- the United States – will respond.

Implications of the incident and the role of the U.S.:

Whatever happens at the South China Sea has profound implications for the US, which has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines that dates back decades. The United States has increased its military presence and naval activity in the region to counter China’s aggressive territorial claims and safeguard its own political and economic interests. Additionally the US has provided weapons and aid to nations opposing China’s territorial claims. The South China Sea is highly valuable for its substantial oil and natural gas reserves, rich fishing grounds and is also a major trade route. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, more than 21 percent of global trade, valued at $3.37 trillion, passes through these waters. Washington and Beijing are talking more regularly to avoid a conflict in the South China Sea despite their “contentious and competitive” relationship. The South China Sea has become a dangerous flash point, where Beijing’s claims are ratcheting up tensions with Taiwan and Philippines, as well as their most powerful ally, the US.

The Philippines is the United States’ oldest treaty ally in Asia and they share a mutual deep and long-standing political, economic, and social ties. On the domestic front, the Philippines has a democratic political system, and the U.S. security umbrella protects it from outside attack. Yet the country suffers from chronic political instability, which is manifested in periodic military rebellions and extralegal “people power” movements against incumbent governments. With its internal problems Manila has chosen to pursue a policy of leveraging its international relationships by seeking to regionalize the South China Sea dispute through ASEAN and by developing closer defense cooperation with the US. 

Conclusion

Amidst all the tension over disputed islands with the Philippines, the People’s Liberation Army has conducted drills in the South China Sea featuring landing ships. What we could make out of these ongoing incidents is that China, a major power, uses realpolitik to press its expansive claim in the South China Sea. On the other hand, the Philippines, a small power, adopts the liberal-legal approach that seeks to balance against China. Thus the potential for these kinds of hostilities will persist as long as China continues to increase its efforts to control the region and as other claimant countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, remain firm in asserting their right to control their respective claims in the South China Sea.

Aishwarya Dutta
Aishwarya Dutta
I am Aishwarya Dutta, an aspiring researcher in the field of International Relations. My interest areas are South Asia, South-East Asia, Indo-Pacific, the South China Sea and its dynamics, Ancient Indian Political Thought and so on. I have completed my master's degree in Political Science from St. Xavier's College, Kolkata. I am a gold medalist in MA( Batch of 2023). I have qualified UGC NET in Political Science and look forward to pursuing a PhD anytime soon. In the meantime I am trying to improve my research skills by working with various think tanks and NGOs.