Rising Tensions in South China Sea: Analysts Warn of Increased War Risk Following China’s New Policies

Military experts are sounding alarms about an increased risk of conflict following China’s recent moves to enforce its claims in the disputed South China Sea more aggressively.

China announced last month that its coast guard will soon have the authority to detain foreigners in the contested waters for up to 60 days, a policy set to take effect on June 15. Additionally, Beijing stated on June 8 that the Philippines must notify China before delivering supplies or evacuating personnel from the Second Thomas Shoal, an area deemed by an international tribunal to be within Philippine waters.

The Philippine National Security Council responded firmly, asserting that the country will continue to manage its outposts in the South China Sea independently. National Security Adviser Eduardo Año labeled China’s demand as “absurd, ridiculous, and unacceptable.”

A recent survey by OCTA Research showed that 73% of Filipinos support increased military actions to protect the country’s territorial rights, including expanded naval patrols and additional troop deployments.

Rising Tensions and Potential Flashpoints

Philippine media expressed concerns that the new Chinese rules could lead to arbitrary arrests of Filipinos within their own waters. China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea overlap with the exclusive economic zones of several Southeast Asian nations.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. condemned China’s new regulations as “totally unacceptable” and vowed to protect Filipino citizens and defend national territory. He warned that any fatal incident involving a Filipino in the South China Sea could escalate tensions to a near-war scenario.

John C. Aquilino, former head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, testified before the U.S. Congress that such a situation could activate the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, potentially drawing the United States into direct conflict with China.

Bob Savic, head of international trade at the Global Policy Institute in London, likened the current situation to the prelude to World War I, suggesting that a conflict sparked by an incident in the South China Sea could have global repercussions.

The Call for Caution

Andrea Chloe Wong, a nonresident research fellow at the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, emphasized that invoking the Mutual Defense Treaty could escalate the situation between the Philippines and China.

Recent confrontations have highlighted the dangers facing Filipino personnel. On June 7, the Philippines accused a Chinese coast guard vessel of ramming a Philippine ship, hindering the evacuation of a sick soldier from the Second Thomas Shoal outpost.

Despite the tensions, Oriana Skylar Mastro, a Center Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, believes that China is unlikely to start a war in the South China Sea, as they are currently unable to project power effectively over such distances.

U.S. Involvement and Collective Action

The U.S. Coast Guard has pledged to send assets to support the Philippines in maintaining its sovereign rights in the South China Sea, according to ABS-CBN News.

Michael Shoebridge of Strategic Analysis Australia, in a report for the National Bureau of Asian Research, argued that collective action by the Philippines and its allies could mitigate the risks posed by China’s aggressive policies. He emphasized that clear adherence to international law and coordinated political responses are essential to counter Chinese intimidation.

At a recent seminar, Shoebridge warned that failing to challenge China’s policies effectively would leave the initiative with Beijing, potentially leading to fatal consequences for allied servicemen and women.

As the situation in the South China Sea remains precarious, regional and global stakeholders are urged to approach the rising tensions with caution and a commitment to upholding international law.


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