Chinese authorities released a newly drawn map this month that claims ownership of nearly all of the South China Sea, an area larger than India, stretching from China’s shores thousands of kilometres to the territorial waters of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.
The English-language Global Times, which communicates policy of the Communist Party government, described it as a “normal exercise of sovereignty in accordance with the law.”
The Filipino secretary of defence sees it differently, calling the new map “control and occupation over the South China Sea.”
In an exclusive interview with CBC News, Gilberto Teodoro says the move “absolutely proves [China’s] intent of expanding and being more assertive.”
“If that’s not stopped, then the whole international rules-based order is in jeopardy.”
He says Chinese control over the South China Sea could imperil the freedom of movement for nations all over the world.
“For Canada … if sea lanes are blocked, then even your supply chains are going to suffer.”
Now boasting the world’s largest navy, China has been increasingly assertive about its many maritime and territorial claims.
A decades-long dispute over the South China Sea, and the Spratly Islands in particular, recently saw Chinese Coast Guard vessels block and nearly ram Philippine vessels attempting to resupply a small military outpost on the Second Thomas Shoal.
China insists it owns the teardrop-shaped atoll, a claim that prompted Manila to beach a rusting warship on the shoal in 1999. It has kept soldiers aboard since then to maintain its assertion of ownership.
The land is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, not China’s. In 2016, an international tribunal ruled overwhelmingly in the Philippines’ favour, determining that major elements of China’s claim were unlawful.
Beijing reacted by deeming the decision “null and void.”
Chinese authorities regularly harass Philippine boats, including with powerful water cannons. Beijing has insisted the Philippines abandon the beached ship. Manila has essentially responded “never.”
Canada’s Navy has two ships currently in the region, sailing through the areas China now claims in its latest map. Canada’s presence is intended to signal to Beijing that the South China Sea is an international waterway, through which ships of any nation may pass.
Teodoro welcomes the Canadian warships, one of which is on a port visit to his country. He says that while Canada is an ocean away, it has a direct stake here.
“If China’s claims are given credence … freedom of navigation and freedom of air traffic is jeopardized,” he said.
Much of Canada’s trade to and from the Indo-Pacific region must pass through the disputed area.
As China grows, allegiances shift
China’s claims to the South China Sea are not new, though the latest map reinforces and expands them.
“China’s position on the South China Sea is consistent and clear,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said after the map was released. “We hope relevant sides can stay objective and calm, and refrain from over-interpreting the issue.”
China is involved in a great power battle with the United States, which has long exerted outsize influence in the Pacific, following the Second World War. As the Americans move more military assets into the region, China is in the midst of a massive buildup of its own armed forces.
The stakes were laid out in a speech last week by the U.S. secretary of the Air Force.
While stressing that “war is not inevitable,” Frank Kendall warned “China has been reoptimizing its forces for great power competition and to prevail against the U.S. in the Western Pacific for over 20 years.”
“At present, it is very important to oppose taking sides, block confrontation and a new cold war,” Chinese Premier Li Qiang told ASEAN member states during their summit in September.
China has sought to counter American influence among its neighbours, and had modest success in the Philippines under the previous government led by president Rodrigo Duterte. Manila moved away from its long-standing alliance with the United States and China filled the void, investing in the country through its Belt and Road initiative, paying for infrastructure and gaining influence.
“There was expectation that rapprochement would mitigate Chinese assertiveness and coercion of the South China Sea,” said Renato de Castro, a distinguished professor at Manila’s De la Salle University. “But that never happened.”
So the new government under President Bongbong Marcos, facing ever more assertive claims and incidents at sea, has nudged Manila back towards Washington.
“China wanted, basically, simple subjugation,” said de Castro. “At the end of the day, China simply pushed the current administration into the waiting arms of the United States. So you have no one to blame but China.”
The Philippines has long focused its military on internal security, whether battling an Islamist insurgency or a vicious and bloody war against drug use. But now it faces a threat from China’s many claims on its territory and waterways.
“It’s an expansionist power at this point in time,” said de Castro.
In March 2023, China welcomed officials from the Philippines to discuss issues in the South China Sea. In a statement issued after the meeting, China said “the two sides had a candid and in-depth exchange of views … and agreed to exercise restraint.”
However, in the months since, there have been multiple incidents on the South China Sea with little sign China will back down, or that the Philippines will relinquish its ownership of disputed lands.
If China claims are left unchallenged, said de Castro, “this will deprive us of 85 per cent of our exclusive economic zone. And, of course the South China Sea acts as a buffer between us and China. So if China controls the South China Sea, there goes our buffer.”
If Taiwan invaded, Philippines key to response
Filipino soldiers routinely train with U.S. troops, and U.S. warships dock at ports in the Philippines. The Americans will also gain access to four new military bases as part of an expanded defence agreement analysts say is aimed at combating China.
Those bases include three on the main island of Luzon, which is close to Taiwan, and one in Palawan province in the South China Sea.
The U.S. maintains its largest forward-deployed naval presence in the Indo-Pacific, with some 70 ships and 27,000 soldiers and sailors.
Japan is the home port for the overwhelming majority of them, many in Okinawa, an island relatively close to Taiwan.
For the U.S., having greater access to the Philippines creates a line directly between Taiwan and mainland China. Some analysts have referred to this angled line as a “crescent of containment.”
Should China forcibly reunite Taiwan with the mainland, it could provoke a major battle between the U.S. and its allies. And the Philippines becomes key to that effort.
Teodoro notes that “the phrase often used by China is that we [Filipinos] are U.S. puppets that are being used to contain China … it is to me an insult, but if you use the word containment, do you not implicitly admit that you want to expand?”
Source : CBC