China appears to be increasingly determined to strengthen its presence and control in areas of the South China Sea close to Southeast Asia that it sees as strategically and economically important.

The Philippines recently accused Chinese navy and maritime surveillance ships of intruding into a new part of the disputed Spratly Islands in May,evidently to lay claim to an uninhabited atoll.

The foreign ministry in Manila summoned the Chinese embassy’s charge d’affaires to explain the ship’s presence in what the Philippines says is its territory. This followed a meeting on May 27 over reports in the Chinese media about Chinese plans to move a giant oil rig into the southern part of the South China Sea next month. Meanwhile, Vietnam protested to Beijing over harassment of a vessel exploring for oil and natural gas off the coast of central Vietnam. China rejected both protests, saying that its actions were normal maritime law enforcement and surveillance activities in waters “under the jurisdiction of China.”

Beijing claims control over about 80 per cent of the South China Sea. As it flexes its muscles, it may try to intensify pressure on the Philippines,rather than Vietnam or Malaysia. The Philippines is militarily by far the weakest of the three Southeast Asian countries that have substantial claims over island and marine territory in the South China Sea. Until recently, Manila has been notably reluctant to risk even a diplomatic confrontation with Beijing, knowing how weak its bargaining position is and fearing reprisals from the world’s second largest economy.

But while China may see the Philippines as the softest target among rival major claimants in the South China Sea, it must also factor in the U.S. reaction. The Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States; Vietnam and Malaysia are not.

Admiral Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month that he was concerned at rising tensions between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea, which he described as a “very strategic and important area to all of us.”

Manila’s claim to the widely scattered Spratlys, which it calls the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), includes 54 atolls, reefs and shoals and overlaps the claims of China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia.

The shallow Reed Bank, about 100 km west of the Philippines’ Palawan Island, is part of the KIG. It is regarded by both Manila and Beijing as a highly prospective offshore zone for oil and gas.

Further north, the Philippines, China and Taiwan contest another widely scattered group of atolls, reefs and shoals, which Beijing calls the Zongsha Archipelago. It includes the Macclesfield Bank to the east of Chinese-occupied Paracel Islands, claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan as well as China.

The Zongsha Archipelago also includes triangular-shaped Scarborough Reef. It is the biggest atoll in the South China Sea, with a circumference of 46 km. Just 215 km west of the main Philippine island of Luzon, Scarborough Reef has the potential to become a Chinese naval anchorage and forward base. There is an international waterway nearby. Over 300 ships pass the vicinity of the reef each day.

Japan — like the Philippines, also a long-standing U.S. ally — uses this route to import most of its oil in tankers from the Middle East and regards the waterway as a vital lifeline. When Japan and China clashed last September over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the U.S. made clear that its mutual security treaty with Japan covered the Japanese-administered islands. Furthermore, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in January that the September incident near the islands “served as a reminder of the importance of America’s and Japan’s treaty obligations to one another.”

Will Washington give similar reassurance to Manila and under what circumstances would it apply? Admiral Willard told a U.S. Congressional committee in April that the U.S.-Philippine alliance, underpinned by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, “remains important to U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific.”

He said that China’s increasing engagement in Southeast Asia presented two notable challenges to America. One was that Chinese activity, “in many cases, is aimed at supplanting U.S. influence.” The other was Beijing’s “expansive claims to, and growing assertiveness in, the South China Sea …”

The U.S. security treaty with the Philippines was signed in 1951, years before Manila lodged its claim to the Spratly Islands in 1978 and Scarborough Reef in 1997. Moreover, the treaty refers only to an armed attack on either country “in the Pacific area,” not in the South China Sea. In addition, there is no automatic mutual defence obligation.

Sometimes strategic ambiguity serves as the best assurance of regional stability. However, if it is seen in Beijing as a sign of U.S. weakness, it may embolden China to continue its assertive policy in the South China Sea.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

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