Scarborough scare in the South China Sea

Article Highlights

  • One-sided outcome shows China's smaller neighbors are losing out to its continued aggression

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  • Aggrieved nations protest and cite the rule of law, but they are ultimately accepting the principle that might makes right

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  • War games won't count for much if Asian capitals believe Washington is sidestepping Chinese provocations

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Chinese and Philippine naval ships faced off for nearly a week over eight Chinese fishing boats operating off a shoal in the South China Sea claimed by both countries. In the end, the Philippines became the latest victim of China's no-limits-fishing strategy, and the fishing boats made off with their haul from the Scarborough Shoal late last week. This one-sided outcome shows China's smaller neighbors are losing out to its continued aggression.

The conflict was a mere 124 nautical miles from the Philippines and occurred well within Manila's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Philippines moved forcefully in the first stages of the confrontation, sending its largest warship to intercept the ships last week. Two Chinese maritime surveillance ships arrived, however, blocking the Philippine vessel and protecting the fishing ships. A standoff ensued and China sent in another ship.

Both sides started urgent diplomatic negotiations. But while top Philippine diplomats asserted that the two countries would not go to war over Scarborough, Philippine politicians were calling for an international diplomatic offensive to pressure Beijing into accepting widely recognized EEZ definitions. That Beijing came out on top will embolden China's rogue fishermen and further worry smaller states who feel they have no recourse against China's demands in similar disputes.

It is clear that Beijing is doing little, if anything, to rein in the fishing boats that have precipitated nearly every maritime confrontation in Asia over the past several years. Before the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia were forced to act against Chinese fishermen in disputed waters. Tellingly, China now no longer hesitates to send armed maritime patrol ships (not regular navy) to prevent those fishermen from being arrested by foreign nations. The Scarborough incident reflects at least the second time that these Chinese ships have faced down the navies of smaller nations.

Other Asian nations regularly capitulate to Chinese pressure in these incidents. The Philippines immediately tried to defuse the situation by replacing its flagship on the scene with a smaller coast guard cutter. Several years ago, Chinese patrol boats trained their guns on a smaller Indonesian navy vessel trying to arrest Chinese fishermen. And in 2010, Japan lost a diplomatic standoff with China after arresting the captain of a fishing boat that had rammed Japanese Coast Guard vessels sent to chase him out of waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands.

While it is a good thing that open conflict did not break out in any of these cases, the fact that China has come out on top in every dispute is shifting the perceived balance of power in Asian waters. Aggrieved nations protest and cite the rule of law, but they are ultimately accepting the principle that might makes right. Chinese fishermen themselves will be emboldened to act, since they know now that Beijing has their back.

At this rate, the United States will find it increasingly hard not to be drawn into future confrontations. While Manila made it clear it was not officially seeking U.S. intervention, Philippine Senator Joker Arroyo called for diplomatic pressure on Beijing from both the U.S. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In 2010, Tokyo explicitly asked Washington to confirm that any Chinese aggression against the disputed Senkaku Islands would fall under the mutual defense clause of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

President Obama's "pivot" to Asia itself will raise expectations for an enhanced U.S. security role, even if America is not directly involved in a dispute. Countries with which Washington has security treaties will likely not be satisfied by American reticence to challenge China's abuse of maritime norms. As Philippine Senator Gregorio Honasan asks, "If (the treaties) are meaningless, why should we pursue them?"

This week the Philippines and the U.S. are holding a joint war game in Palawan with nearly 7,000 troops. But war games and training exercises won't count for much if Asian capitals believe Washington is sidestepping Chinese provocations. Such doubt over America's credibility will only be deepened if defense budget cuts begin to limit the number of port visits by the U.S. Navy. This comes at a time when China is increasing the number of patrols it is sending out into the South China Sea.

There is also the possibility of greater Russian involvement complicating these maritime disputes. Russian gas giant Gazprom just announced plans to develop gas fields off of Vietnam's coast, in waters China has strenuously claimed. BP quietly ended joint exploration with Hanoi after Chinese threats, but Moscow is less likely to buckle under pressure, despite having no navy capable of projecting power down to the South China Sea.

There is no quick fix for these maritime troubles. The Scarborough Shoal dispute shows that Chinese assertions aren't stopping, and that Beijing's ability to intimidate neighbors is shifting the balance of power. As it becomes harder to contain Chinese muscle-flexing, America's allies in the region will increasingly call for it to live up to its commitments and help defend the freedom of the seas.

Mr. Auslin is a scholar in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for wsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.

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