Global Impact: as uncertainties swirl over South China Sea, joint exercises and heightened tensions reverberate within the neighbourhood

Amid the maritime tensions, China held joint military exercises with five Southeast Asian countries – Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, but not the Philippines – in what has been seen as a bid by Beijing to play “catch-up” with America’s defence relationships in the region.
Not to be outdone, the United States followed up with an 11-day joint military exercise involving nearly 3,000 members of elite forces from the Philippines, the US, Japan, South Korea and Britain to reportedly improve “interoperability”.

Soon after, the Philippines and Australia began their first joint three-day sea-and-air patrols in the South China Sea to underscore what they say is a commitment to a “peaceful, secure and prosperous region”.


Why the South China Sea dispute remains one of the region’s most pressing issues

Why the South China Sea dispute remains one of the region’s most pressing issues

The maritime disputes and the lack of trust and confidence these have generated have prompted the head of a top Chinese think tank to call for a strategy of opening up the marine sector, which includes cooperation in the marine economic sector.

But this might be too little, too late. Vietnam is believed to be ramping up its dredging and landfill work in the Spratly Islands, creating an additional 330 acres of land since December last year, according to a US think tank report.

In the meantime, a Chinese carrier strike group headed to the South China Sea after completing a week-long drill near Japan’s waters, according to Japan’s defence ministry.
The drill was held shortly after Japan and the Philippines discussed strengthening maritime and defence cooperation, including a Reciprocal Access Agreement that would enable military personnel from each country to visit the other for joint training exercises – a move widely seen to be targeting China.

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When Xi and Biden met during their summit in San Francisco, both sides pledged to “enhance trust” and “manage differences”, including over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
But within days, China conducted two one-day live-fire drills in the South China Sea as the US and the Philippine navies carried out joint sea and air patrols, with Beijing calling Washington “the biggest disrupter of peace”.
With tensions a regular feature in the disputed waterway, analysts do not appear to be holding out much hope, even as China and Southeast Asian nations agreed to start on the third reading of a long-delayed code of conduct for the South China Sea.

Citing the slow progress of the regional pact, the Philippines said it has approached neighbours such as Malaysia and Vietnam to discuss a separate code of conduct to ensure peace in the region.

60-Second Catch-up

Deep dives

Photo: AFP

Pressure mounts on China as Philippines says it will never give an inch

  • A view of Beijing as coercive and aggressive has the potential to push countries towards the West if it does not soften, analysts say

  • China ‘cannot keep shooting itself in the foot and then blame Manila or Washington for pulling the trigger’, says Wilson Centre fellow

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr said Manila will never abandon its claims in the South China Sea amid heightened tensions with China in the disputed waterway, according to a strongly-worded statement.

“As I have said before, and I will say again, the Philippines will not give up a single square inch of our territory to any foreign power,” he told a forum in Honolulu on Sunday, according to his press office, without explicitly naming Beijing.

Photo: Bloomberg

Is Philippines’ alliance building to counter China a ‘major naval war’ risk?

  • Apart from the US, the Philippines is expanding its military alliances with Japan, Australia and Germany amid growing tensions with China

  • Without more top-level talks between Manila and Beijing to ease tensions, analysts say both sides risk ‘miscalculations’ that could lead to war

China’s escalation of so-called grey-zone activities against the Philippines, and Manila’s response in seeking more allies, could cause already-brewing tensions in the region to spiral out of control.
This was the assessment by analysts weighing in on the recent spate of actions in the disputed South China Sea, particularly over the Second Thomas Shoal, which Manila calls Ayungin, an atoll about 190km (120 miles) northwest of the Philippine island of Palawan.


Beijing and Manila trade blame over ‘provocative’ moves with ship collisions near disputed shoal

Beijing and Manila trade blame over ‘provocative’ moves with ship collisions near disputed shoal

Photo: Shutterstock

From favourite to ‘forgotten’: Philippines’ sea dispute sees China pull funds

  • In scrapping US$5 billion worth of rail projects, the Philippines cited Chinese foot-dragging over financing rather than their squabbles at sea

  • But observers speculate it was Manila’s refusal to back down in the disputed waterway that had caused Beijing to hold back on the cash

The government letter to Huang Xilian, China’s top envoy in Manila, was polite yet unequivocal as it ran a thick red line through a US$1.4 billion plan for a railway in the southernmost island of Mindanao, stating the Philippines “is no longer inclined to pursue” long-promised Chinese financing for the 100km track.
It was another signal, analysts say, of how disputes over territory in the South China Sea are scuttling the relationship between Manila and Beijing, as President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr cancels billions of dollars of promised Chinese loans to fund a network of much-needed railways – and China strangles its pipeline of cash for infrastructure projects.
Photo: Philippine Marine Corps

What a 5-nation military exercise says about US strategy in the Indo-Pacific

  • Kamandag 7 marks heightened US interest in troop deployment in the region according to perceived challenges

  • The exercise sees the deployment of the Marine Rotational Force-Southeast Asia, which allows the US to be first responder to any crisis in the Indo-Pacific region

An 11-day joint military exercise involving nearly 3,000 members of elite forces from the Philippines, United States, Japan, South Korea and Britain is under way and focused on “interoperability” to counter any crisis in the Indo-Pacific region, as geopolitical tensions mount in the south and east China seas.

“Kamandag 7” is part of a series of training exercises across Southeast Asia comprising 2,749 personnel, including 902 US marines. Some of the Americans hail from a newly created fighting unit, formed by the US last year to be the first responder in the Indo-Pacific.


Livelihoods lost: The fishermen snared in the Scarborough Shoal dispute

Livelihoods lost: The fishermen snared in the Scarborough Shoal dispute

Photo: US Navy

China and US urged not to let disputes overshadow ocean governance efforts

  • An event in China’s Hainan province heard that the two must lead the way on international efforts to tackle problems such as piracy and climate change

  • China and a number of other countries in the region are embroiled in a series of long-running territorial disputes in the resource-rich waters

An event held on the Chinese island of Hainan earlier this month heard that progress will not be possible without cooperation between the two superpowers, who were urged not to let regional maritime disputes overshadow efforts to address issues such as piracy, climate change and other environmental threats.

Global Impact is a weekly curated newsletter featuring a news topic originating in China with a significant macro impact for our newsreaders around the world.

South China Morning Post

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