Map locating Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines in the South China Sea and claimed by both the Philippines and China.

Map locating Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines in the South China Sea and claimed by both the Philippines and China. (MCT)


Next US president will be facing dangerously different North KoreaSouth China Sea has become flashpoint between American status quo and Chinese naval ambitions The South China Sea has become the flashpoint between the ambitions of rising superpower China and a decades-long regional status quo upheld by the United States.

The Spratly Islands, a small group of reefs and shoals off the eastern coast of the Philippine island of Palawan, has become the focal point of that struggle. Tensions have continued to rise over the disputed area, and America’s next commander in chief faces the prospect of armed skirmishes with the strongest foe that the United States has faced in more than a half century.

The Spratly archipelago spans much of the southern portion of the sea, and some of its atolls, reefs and shoals have been claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. China has claimed sovereignty over most of the South China Sea and all the Spratlys.

The South China Sea is an important maritime route for global transportation, with about $5.3 trillion in trade shipped over its waters each year -- $1.2 trillion belonging to the United States. The waters are also heavily fished, particularly by China. Valuable minerals and petroleum are believed to lie beneath the sea bed.

In 2015, satellite photos revealed that China had during a very short period built up Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs by pumping up sand from the sea floor. It had then built facilities and runways on the three expanded reefs.

U.S. officials protested, describing the activities as militarization and a threat to freedom of the seas.

As a backdrop was a case filed in 2013 by the Philippines with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, requesting a ruling on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The case was filed under provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an agreement China had signed.

In July, the tribunal announced its findings that China had no right to build artificial islands on reefs within the so-called exclusive economic zones of other nations and that China’s argument that it had had historical rights to the territory became null when it signed the U.N. sea convention.

Rather than diffuse tensions in the Spratly Islands, however, the decision resulted in an ever-more defiant stance by China, which said it would not abide by the decision. In August, the Chinese defense minister called for preparations for “a people’s war at sea.”

“This is a long-term geopolitical poker game that’s being played out there,” said Mohan Malik, a China expert and professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. “It’s not about rocks and reefs. It’s not about history. It’s not about the (court) verdict. It’s about the future of the regional order: Pax Sinica versus Pax Americana. And that’s going to go on for a long period of time.”

The newly elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is an added wildcard in the drama. A political outsider and skeptic of U.S. military involvement with the Philippines, Duterte has expressed a willingness to negotiate with China over the disputed islands. That’s an about-face from the previous administration, which had taken a hard stance on the issue and filed for arbitration.

Two months before Duterte was sworn into office in June, the U.S. and Philippines signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, under which American troops and vessels would be allowed to rotate through five Philippine bases, including an air base on Palawan.

When or how those deployments will evolve remains to be seen, but implementation will fall upon the new presidential administrations of each country.

The Philippines now has a “clear choice” between maintaining its alliance with the United States or striking a deal with China, said Zack Cooper, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. The latter, however, is unlikely because the Chinese probably won’t offer the Filipinos a deal they’d be willing to accept, he said.

What is certain is China objects to a strengthened military alliance between America and the Philippines. In April, China denied a request for a port call in Hong Kong by a U.S. carrier strike group. The proposed port call came shortly after the strike group cruised in the South China Sea with Defense Secretary Ash Carter aboard.

The United States stepped up so-called freedom-of-navigation patrols within the Spratly Islands over the past year, with civilian and military officials repeatedly stating the archipelago is in international waters.

During a Pentagon news conference this winter, Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said China’s three 10,000-foot runways on the Spratlys – along its fighter jets and advanced missile systems in the Paracel Islands to the north – had changed “the operational landscape of the South China Sea.”

“So, that is what’s changed,” he said. “The United States and our patrols — military patrols, air and maritime in the South China Sea — haven’t really changed. We have a consistent presence in the western Pacific, and we have had that for decades.”

“China doesn’t want to go to war with the U.S.,” said Malik, an opinion held by most analysts – and Harris. “It will do everything to avoid going to war with the U.S., but below that threshold they will continue to poke and provoke U.S. friends and allies — Japan and Vietnam — to keep the pot boiling.”

The challenge for a new administration will be to push back against these so-called “gray zone” conflicts, which fall somewhere between peace and war, without escalating into the real thing. Twitter: @WyattWOlson

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.

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