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Analysts see rising war threat in China’s new South China Sea policies

washington — Military experts are warning of an increased risk of war with China following recent announcements by Beijing providing for more aggressive enforcement of its claims to disputed regions of the South China Sea.  

Late last month, China announced its coast guard will be empowered to investigate and detain for up to 60 days “foreigners who endanger China’s national security and interests” in the disputed waters. The policy will take effect on June 15.    

And on June 8, it announced it would permit the Philippines to deliver supplies and evacuate personnel from an outpost on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, which has been determined by an international tribunal to lie within Philippine waters, only if it first notifies Beijing.    

The Philippine National Security Council replied that the country will continue to maintain and supply its outposts in the South China Sea without seeking permission from any other country.    

In a formal statement under the council’s letterhead, national security adviser Eduardo Ano dismissed the suggestion as”absurd, ridiculous and unacceptable.”

According to a June 10 report in the South China Morning Post, a survey released by independent polling agency OCTA Research showed that 73% of Filipinos support further military action to safeguard the Philippines’ territorial rights, including expanded naval patrols and the dispatch of additional troops.   

Philippine media believe the new procedures will empower the Chinese coast guard to “arbitrarily” arrest Filipinos in their own waters. China’s claims to almost the entire sea reach into the internationally recognized economic zones of several Southeast Asian countries.    

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. called the new rules “totally unacceptable” and said he will take all necessary measures to “protect citizens” and continue to”defend the country’s territory.”  

In his keynote speech at the Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore on May 31, the president pointed out that if a Filipino was killed in a South China Sea conflict with China, it would”almost certainly” cross a red line and come “very close” to what the Philippines defines as an act of war.  

John C. Aquilino, former head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, testified before the U.S. Congress last month that Manila could invoke the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty in such a case.  

Bob Savic, head of international trade at the Global Policy Institute in London, said last week that this could bring the United States and China into a direct conflict.  

“The trigger for the First World War occurred on June 28, 1914, with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in a country in Southeast Europe. This time, the trigger could be the death of a Filipino sailor in the tropical waters of Southeast Asia,” he wrote in an article published in the Asia Times.  

He believes if Manila is forced to request U.S. assistance under the Mutual Defense Treaty, it is conceivable that China Coast Guard ships would quickly confront U.S. warships maintaining freedom of navigation in the region. “The U.S. and China must ensure they don’t sleepwalk into a repeat of the 1914 tragedy in the second half of June 2024 or, indeed, at any point in the future,” Savic wrote.  

‘It might trigger escalation’

Andrea Chloe Wong, a nonresident research fellow at the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, told VOA at a June 6 seminar hosted by the National Bureau of Asian Research that if the Mutual Defense Treaty is invoked, “it might trigger escalation or conflict between the Philippines and China.”  

The safety of Filipino personnel has become the focus of recent rounds of South China Sea disputes. On June 7, the Philippines accused a Chinese coast guard ship of ramming a Philippine ship, deterring the evacuation of a sick soldier from a grounded warship which serves as a Philippine military outpost on the Second Thomas Shoal. 

Romeo Brawner, chief of staff of the armed forces of the Philippines, told reporters June 4 that Chinese coast guard officers had seized some food that a plane dropped for Philippine naval personnel aboard the aging warship. He also released video of the incident, AP reported.   

Despite the rising tension, Oriana Skylar Mastro, a Center Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, told VOA that the possibility of World War III breaking out in the South China Sea is not high.  

She believes that China will not choose to fight a war in the South China Sea at this time because they know they would lose.  

“They can’t project power across those kinds of distances yet. When I talk to the PLA [People’s Liberation Army, China’s principal military force], they say the only reason they haven’t declared internal waters in the Spratly [chain] is because there’s no way they can enforce that.”  

US promises assets, say reports

The United States Coast Guard has promised to send assets to the South China Sea to help Manila uphold sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone, ABS-CBN News said Tuesday, citing the Philippine Coast Guard. 

In a statement, the Philippine Coast Guard said the U.S. Coast Guard will deploy its North Pacific Coast Guard following a proposal by Philippine Admiral Ronnie Gil Gavan. Gavan called for a “greater deployment” in the high seas “to address the forthcoming threat” posed by China’s threat to arrest foreigners inside what it claims as its maritime boundaries.  

In a research report released last month by the National Bureau of Asian Research, Michael Shoebridge of the Strategic Analysis Australia pointed out that collective action by the Philippines and its allies could effectively reduce risks in the South China Sea.  

“The risk of such collective action escalating into conflict is real. However, it could be mitigated by the militaries clearly acting within international law and coordinating a united political response to demonstrate and communicate this,” he wrote. “That would counter Chinese efforts”to intimidate others and cast such lawful action as aggression.”  

Shoebridge, who also attended the National Bureau of Asian Research’s June 6 seminar, said at the meeting that “unless we cause Chinese policy and action to fail, we are leaving all the leverage with Beijing, and we are waiting for our servicemen and women to be killed by the PLA. And that’s not the future that I want.”  

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.