South China Sea becoming 'boiling pot' amid rising tensions, analysts say

Tensions will prompt Southeast Asian nations to take a stronger defence posture and further embrace US regional pivot, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 May, 2014, 4:13am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 May, 2014, 4:41am

The escalating stand-offs between China and Vietnam, and between Beijing and Manila, will push Southeast Asian nations to build up their maritime capabilities, resulting in heightened tensions in the South China Sea, observers say.

The nations were also likely to embrace a stronger United States presence in the region to Beijing's dismay, they said, pointing to a drill held this week by the US and the Philippines on unexpected marine encounters.

Long-running tensions between China and Vietnam rose last Saturday when Beijing announced drilling for oil in the disputed Paracel Islands.

At the same time, Beijing asked Manila to release a Chinese fishing boat and crew who were detained by the Philippines on suspicion of illegally entering its territorial waters and poaching sea turtles.

"The posture of China is confusing. It says that it wants to maintain a good relationship with its neighbours, but it is also deliberately getting more assertive," said Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

The recent flare-up with Vietnam centres on the legitimacy of the drilling. Hanoi declared the operation illegal, but Beijing said it was operating in sovereign waters, about 17 nautical miles from China. Confrontations escalated when Beijing and Hanoi deployed additional ships, leading to collisions.

Each side defended its actions as necessary to ensure the safety of its vessels.

Regardless of the competing claims, the stand-off would lead other nations that were locked in sovereignty disputes with China to push ahead with strengthening their navies and moving closer towards Washington, analysts said. Malaysia, for example, has upgraded its ties with the US to a "comprehensive partnership".

"The South China Sea is becoming a boiling pot," said Shanghai-based military affairs commentator Ni Lexiong . "China is not only paying attention to its maritime rights, but also trying to reclaim the maritime stance that it thinks it has lost over the past years. Other nations will see it as an expansionist move."

US and Philippine marine forces staged mock assaults on a South China Sea beach in the Philippines yesterday. Officials from both sides said the exercise had been in the planning for years and no specific enemy was targeted. But it comes after US troops were given access to Philippine bases by a defence pact.

"Both the joint naval drill and the defence pact indicate the US is strengthening its pivot towards Asia," said Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie .

Ni added: "The US will back up whatever nation that China tries to claim maritime rights from."

Vietnam and the Philippines were expected to present a united front in pushing for a code of conduct for the South China Sea at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Myanmar this weekend.

"Southeast Asian nations are seeing that it is China magnifying the dispute rather than calming it down," Oh said.

But Li Mingjiang, an associate professor from the same institute as Oh, said Vietnam and the Philippines did not have the leverage to convince all Southeast Asian nations to side with them.

The 24th Asean Summit is taking place in Naypyidaw.

Additional reporting by Agence France Presse