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With flocks of ships, Beijing strengthens its grip on the South China Sea




Chinese ships were placed as unwanted guests who would not leave.

As the days passed, more appeared. They were just fishing boats, China said, though they did not appear to be fishing. Dozens even rushed together in clean lines, seeking shelter, it was claimed, from storms that never came.

Not long ago, China asserted its claims to the South China Sea by building and strengthening artificial islands in waters also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Its strategy now is to reinforce those posts by filling the disputed waters with ships, effectively challenging other countries to expel them.

The goal is to achieve with an overwhelming presence what it has not been able to do through diplomacy or international law. And to some extent, it seems to be working.

Beijing clearly thinks that if it uses enough coercion and pressure for a long period of time, it will tighten Southeast Asians, said Greg Polling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. dirty developments in the South China Sea. It is insidious.

Chinas’ actions reflect the country’s growing confidence under its leader, Xi Jinping. They could test the Biden administration, as well as Beijing’s neighbors in the South China Sea, which are increasingly dependent on China’s strong economy and supply of Covid-19 vaccines.

The latest incident has been unfolding in recent weeks around Whitsun Reef, a boomerang-shaped feature that comes out of the water only by tide. At one point in March, 220 Chinese ships were reported to be anchored around the tire, sparking protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which have claims there and from the United States.

Philippine Secretary of Defense, Dolphin Lorenzana, called their presence a clear provocation. Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused China violated the sovereignty of the country and demanded that the ships leave.

In this past week, some had left, but many remained, according to satellite photos taken by Maxar Technologies, a Colorado-based company. The others moved to another reef just a few miles away, while a new flock of 45 Chinese ships was spotted 100 miles northeast of another Philippine-controlled island, Thitu, according to satellite photos and Philippine officials.

The Chinese ambassador has a lot to explain to do, Mr Lorenzana said in a statement Saturday.

The rally has sparked tensions in a region that, along with Taiwan, threatens to become another hotbed of intense confrontation between China and the United States.

Although the United States has not taken a position on the disputes in the South China Sea, they have criticized China’s aggressive tactics there, including the militarization of their bases. For years, the United States has sent Navy warships on routine patrols to challenge Chinas’ assertion of the right to restrict any military activity there three times since President Biden took office in January.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken expressed support for the Philippines for the presence of Chinese ships. We will always stand by our allies and stand by the rule-based international order, he wrote on Twitter.

The gathering has highlighted the further erosion of the Philippine control over the disputed waters, which could become a problem for the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte.

The country’s defense department sent two planes and a ship to Whitsun Reef to document the construction, but did not intervene otherwise. It is not known if the Vietnamese forces responded.

Critics say China’s disregard for the Philippines’ claims reflects the failure of Mr Duterte’s efforts to reach out to the Communist Party leadership in Beijing.

People should hear from the commander-in-chief himself, a coward for China but a bully for his people, said Mr Dutertes’s strongest political opponent, Senator Leila de Lima. Mr Duterte did not address the issue publicly, although his spokesman suggested that calm efforts to alleviate the situation were under way.

China has lifted the protests. A foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said Chinese fishermen have been fishing in the waters near the dam all the time. Officials in the Philippines and experts said there was no evidence of this.

Rebel Whitsun is part of a workshop known as Union Banks, about 175 nautical miles from Palawan, a Philippine island. The Philippines, China and Vietnam each claim that the atoll lies in the exclusive economic zones of their countries, but only China and Vietnam have established a regular physical presence there, giving each a safe, if not legal, advantage in asserting control. .

Vietnam has occupied four islands in the atoll since the 1970s, while China has built two submarine posts previously submerged as part of its program, which has been underway since 2014, to clean up seven artificial islands. Two of the Grierson Reef, occupied by Vietnam, and Hughes Reef, occupied by China, are less than three nautical miles apart.

An international tribunal convened under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled in 2016 that China’s expansive claims in almost the entire South China Sea had no legal basis, although it barred the division of territory between its claimants. different. China has based its claims on a line with nine lines drawn on maps before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

A Philippine patrol first reported the large number of boats on the Whitsun Reef on March 7th. According to Mr. Poling, satellite imagery has shown a regular, albeit smaller, Chinese presence over the past year in the reef.

As of March 29, 45 ships remained in Whitsun, according to a statement Wednesday from the National Task Force-Western Philippine Sea, an agency reporting to the office of Philippine presidents. The Task Force numbered 254 ships as well as four Chinese warships that day at Spratlys, an archipelago of more than 100 islands, bays and other exits between the Philippines and Vietnam.

The task force said the 254 vessels were not fishing vessels, as Beijing claimed, but part of the Chinas naval militia, a so-called civilian force which has become an integral instrument of the new Chinas naval strategy. Many of these ships, while unarmed, are operated by reservists or others carrying out the orders of the Coast Guard and the Peoples Liberation Army.

They may be doing illegal activities at night and their prolonged (rapid) presence could cause irreparable damage to the marine environment, the labor force statement said.

The presence of so many Chinese ships is meant to intimidate. By having them there, and by scattering them through these water spaces around the reefs that others occupy, or around oil and gas fields or fishing grounds, you are constantly pushing Filipinos and Vietnamese, said Mr. Poling.

If you are a Filipino fisherman, you are always bullied by these people, he said. They are always maneuvering very close, dropping trumpets. At one point you just give up and stop fishing there.

Patrols and statements aside, Mr. Duterte’s government does not seem eager to confront China. His spokesman, Harry Roque, echoed Chinese claims that the ships were simply temporarily sheltered.

We hope the weather clears, he said, and in the spirit of friendship we hope their boats leave the area.

The Philippines has become increasingly dependent on Chinese trade and, as it fights the pandemic, too.

On Monday, the first batch of Covid-19 vaccines arrived in Manila from China with much fanfare. About four million doses are scheduled to arrive by May, some of them donations. The Ambassador of China, Huang Xilian, attended the arrival of the vaccines and later met with Mr. Duterte.

China is violating our maritime area, but mitigating it by sending us vaccines, said Antonio Carpio, a retired Supreme Court open judge who is an expert in maritime dispute. Its part of the PR effort to soften the blow, but we should not fall into that.

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