Two United States guided-missile destroyers – the USS Spruance and the USS Preble — sailed into the South China Sea last Monday, close to the Spratly island group near Palawan. The sail-bys were, as expected, immediately protested by China as a “provocative action.”
Earlier, last January 7, another US warship, the USS McCampbell, sailed near the Paracels, another group of islands also in the South China Sea but farther north, between Vietnam and Luzon. These are only the latest incidents involving US ships and planes in the South China Sea. And they are not likely to be the last.
At the root of the dispute is China’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, defined by a nine-dash loop, as its territorial waters and the many islands within the loop as its territory. The US, whose warships sail all over the globe, rejects this claim, saying the South China Sea — like other international waters – is open to all shipping under the principle of “freedom of navigation.”
China’s claim is similarly disputed by several nations in Southeast Asia, notably the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia. The Philippines is specially concerned as Scarborough Shoal, which is known to us as Panatag or Bajo de Masinloc, is well within our 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But it is also within China’s nine-dash loop.
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have an understanding on their respective claims. We will stand by our claims, especially since we are backed by the UN Arbitral Court in The Hague. But we all agreed to have a Code of Conduct to guide our moves and decisions without giving up our legal claims.
This has helped keep the peace between China and the Southeast Asian nations, but the US, the world’s remaining superpower, is not yielding on the principle of “freedom of navigation.” It has vowed to keep sending its warships and its planes into the South China Sea, close to the shoals China has built up with runways and garrisons.
The danger is that one of these days, a close encounter may lead to a shooting incident, and escalate into a wider war which we all fear. This is why the Philippines and its fellow ASEAN members hope that some kind of agreement, perhaps under the United Nations, can be reached to settle this matter.
We will continue to have these repeated sail-bys by American warships, followed automatically by protests by China. Surely in this modern age, nations should be able to sit down and come to some agreement, knowing that a war like those in the earlier days of our world is no longer possible in today’s nuclear age.