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China has expanded facilities on Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Photo: Getty Images

China’s rising challenge to US raises risk of South China Sea conflict, Philippines warns

Manila’s top envoy says contested waters are not yet ‘a Chinese lake’ but balance of power shifting as Beijing extends its reach

The risk of “miscalculation” and armed conflict in the South China Sea is rising as China starts to challenge US dominance in the disputed waters, according to the Philippines’ envoy to Beijing.

The assessment comes as Beijing appears to have expanded its communications links and other facilities on artificial islands in the area. 

At a forum in Manila on Monday, ambassador Chito Sta. Romana said the balance of power in the region was shifting as the two global powers vied for control of the waters.

He added that the Philippines should not become entangled in the tense maritime rivalry.

“Whereas before the South China Sea was dominated by the US 7th Fleet, now the Chinese navy is starting to challenge the dominance,” Sta. Romana said. “I think we will see a shift in the balance of power.”

But he also said the South China Sea had not become “a Chinese lake”.

“Look at the US aircraft carrier, it’s still going through the South China Sea,” he added, referring to the USS Carl Vinson, which has patrolled the disputed waters and is on a visit to the Philippines.

He compared the two powers to elephants fighting and trampling on the grass, saying: “What we don’t want is for us to be the grass.”

Philippine ambassador to Beijing, Chito Sta. Romana, has likened the US and China to two elephants fighting over the region. Photo: AP 

The Carl Vinson, with a fleet of about 40 fighter jets and roughly 5,000 American sailors, arrived in Manila this week in a display of American presence in the Philippines.

The United States is also poised to send an aircraft carrier to Vietnam in March, the first time in more than four decades.

But the presence of the warship would not change China’s established advantage in the region, according to Xu Liping, a researcher on Asian-Pacific studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“The aircraft carriers’ visits are only symbolic – to show that America still has a military presence in the region and that it is still a hegemon,” Xu said.

“But with the military construction programme on the three major islands in the South China Sea, China has built an effective network of intelligence gathering and defence abilities.”

In a US congressional hearing last week, Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, said Beijing had unilaterally built seven new military bases in the South China Sea, with new facilities including “aircraft hangers, barracks facilities, radar facilities, weapon emplacements [and] 10,000-foot runways”.

US think tank CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative also said last week that the northeastern corner of Fiery Cross Reef, known as Yongshu Reef in China, had been equipped with a communications or sensor array bigger than those found on other artificial islands in the Spratlys chain. It said the facility could potentially serve as a signals intelligence or communications hub for Chinese forces in the area.

Aaron Rabena, programme convenor at the Manila-based Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, described China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea as a “real game-changer” that challenged the US’ prior dominance in the region.

“Strategic advantage and balance of power draws from both geography and capability – China now has both in the South China Sea,” he said.

And, as a defence treaty ally of the US and a smaller regional player, Manila could be caught in the crossfire.

“An armed conflict in the South China Sea could mean a full-blown great power war between Beijing and Washington,” Rabena said. “The Philippines might get entangled and be drawn into a conflict.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Zheng and Associated Press

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Risk of conflict rises as China takes on US: Manila