How Is China Using Naval Power to Bully Neighbors in the South China Sea?

How Is China Using Naval Power to Bully Neighbors in the South China Sea?

South China Sea Chinese navy bullying neighbors
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This weekend, the international community witnessed a stark display of China’s assertive maritime strategy the, as a Chinese coast guard vessel targeted a non-military ship from the Philippines. The incident involved the Chinese vessel pursuing a ship belonging to the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries, underscoring the intensifying confrontations in the region.

Manila Reports Multiple Aggressive Encounters

According to Manila’s reports, this aggression wasn’t an isolated incident. Another Filipino vessel faced a similar threat, targeted by water cannons, resulting in significant damage. One of the ships was rendered inoperable, necessitating a tow. These incidents are not only dramatic but also reflect a long-standing pattern of disputes between China and the Philippines.

Escalation of Maritime Disputes

The frequency of such confrontations has increased, with the latest incidents being viewed as a significant escalation by Manila. Commodore Jay Tarriela, a spokesperson for the Philippine Coast Guard, emphasized Manila’s commitment to maintaining a moral high ground, refusing to respond with force to these provocations. This restraint comes despite China’s apparent strategy to test the patience of the Philippines in the South China Sea, a region known for its volatility and heavy militarization.

The Complex Dynamics of the South China Sea

The South China Sea is a hotbed of international disputes, with overlapping claims from six countries and regions: China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. China’s claims are the most expansive, asserting ownership over almost the entire sea. To enforce these claims, China has deployed a significant fleet in the region, using around 400 vessels to intimidate and provoke neighboring countries, especially the Philippines.

China’s Mixed Fleet of Enforcement

This formidable fleet includes naval and coast guard ships, as well as vessels operated by the Chinese militia, often referred to as “little blue men.” These vessels, appearing as commercial ships, are in reality enforcers of China’s maritime strategy. They patrol the disputed areas, ensuring China’s control. A notable area of their operation is the Second Thomas Shoal, where they frequently confront Philippine interests.

The Symbolic Sierra Madre and Philippines’ Defense

The Sierra Madre, a vessel steeped in history and symbolism, lies at the heart of the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea. This rusting hulk of a ship, grounded deliberately at the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999, has become much more than a mere relic of the past. For the Philippines, it represents a steadfast statement of sovereignty in a sea of competing claims. Despite its weather-beaten appearance and the passage of time, the Sierra Madre continues to serve a crucial purpose. It is more than just a ship; it’s a floating symbol of the Philippines’ unwavering claim to this part of the sea. The presence of a Filipino marine detachment on this vessel underscores the country’s resolve to maintain a visible and physical stance in the face of growing regional tensions.

This outpost, while seemingly fragile, is a strategic point for Manila in monitoring the activities of Chinese vessels that frequent these disputed waters. The presence of the marines aboard the Sierra Madre is not just a military necessity but also a political statement. It sends a clear message of defiance and resilience against what Manila perceives as China’s encroaching presence. The ship’s location at the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef claimed by both nations, is pivotal. The shoal lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but is also a part of the vast area claimed by China, making it a hotbed of maritime confrontations. The Sierra Madre, therefore, stands as a silent sentinel, a reminder of the ongoing struggle for control and influence in this strategically significant and resource-rich region of the world.

Supply Missions: A Challenging Task

These remote deployments require regular supplies, a task increasingly complicated by Chinese interference. Supply ships from the Philippines are often harassed or blocked by Chinese vessels, with reports indicating about 100 Chinese ships near the Sierra Madre, ready to confront any approaching Philippine vessel.

Recent Collision and Blame Game

The recent collision near the Second Thomas Shoal has put the spotlight on China as the aggressor. In response to the incident, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, blamed the Philippine vessels for intruding into the lagoon of Renai reef (also known as Second Thomas Shoal) and colliding with Chinese maritime police vessels in a dangerous manner. This narrative, however, is contested by Manila.

Related: South China Sea Clash: Philippine, Chinese Vessels Collide

Manila’s Restraint and Beijing’s Aggressiveness

Despite repeated provocations, Manila has so far refrained from using force, in stark contrast to Beijing’s aggressive tactics. This situation raises concerns about the potential for escalated conflict in a region already brimming with tensions. Such a conflict could have significant global repercussions, representing a scenario that neither the world nor China can afford.

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