The South China Sea is heating up once again. This time, tensions are rising between China and the Philippines, with echoes of their 2012 stand-off over the Scarborough Shoal. However, unlike then, the Philippine leadership – specifically President Rodrigo Duterte – has, for some time, been expressing favour towards Beijing.
The current crisis concerns the Philippines’ most significant military outpost in the Spratly group – in waters that China claims under its capacious nine-dash line that covers nearly 90 per cent of the South China Sea. According to official Philippine government statistics for the first quarter of 2019, there were 657 sightings of 275 distinct Chinese vessels in the waters around Thitu Island, which is not far from one of China’s largest artificial islands in the Spratly group, Mischief Reef.
These vessels encompass the gamut of Chinese capabilities, including so-called “maritime militia” vessels – commercial ships tasked with asserting Beijing’s interests. In recent years, China also has supported the operation of these vessels with warships and maritime law enforcement vessels.