Tensions continue to mount in the South China Sea and with Beijing increasingly desperate to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the wake of The Hague ruling the possibility for a conflict in one of Asia’s most dangerous flash points has never been greater.
The People’s Republic of China may soon look to fundamentally alter the status-quo in the South China Sea by seizing the disputed Scarborough Shoal within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines – a move that Washington considers a “red line” with President Obama warning of “serious consequences” in March if China attempted to reclaim the land.
An article in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post raises the specter of the potential incursion quoting “a source familiar with the matter” detailing that Beijing would not look to reclaim the territory before hosting the G-20 next month, but could begin construction efforts on the land mass sometime between September and when Americans go to the polls in November.
The source suggests that Beijing may look to take advantage of the domestic distractions put on President Obama during the political season. “Obama will focus on domestic issues ahead of the election as he needs to pass down legacies before leaving office,” said the source. “That might make him busy and he might not have the time to take care of regional security issues.”
The potential move is seen by security analysts as a way for China to counteract the recent ruling by The Hague arbitration court and effectively nullify any possible claims to the important body of water. The ruling came after the Philippines submitted for unilateral arbitration, at the behest of the Obama administration, with the court ruling against China’s historic claim to the area citing in large part the Scarborough Shoal.
The South China Sea is home to over 40% of the world’s shipborne trade and also possesses one of the world’s largest oil and natural gas deposits meaning that the economic consequence of fettering away the territory based on the ruling, which China vehemently denounces, would have a substantial negative economic impact on Beijing for years to come.
In April, China announced plans to begin reclamation around the Scarborough Shoal, which is north of the Philippines, despite contesting claims to the territory by Philippines and Taiwan.
“Since the G20 will be held in Hangzhou next month, and regional peace will be the main topic among leaders of the great powers, China will refrain from [acting on the] reclamation plan,” the source said as quoted by South China Morning Post newspaper.
The source does believe that the possibility exists that China will avoid reclaiming the Scarborough Shoal in light of the fact that the Philippines have expressed an openness to find ways to resolve the dispute peacefully.
The source also added, that Beijing could start reclaiming land in the disputed Spratly Islands before the US presidential elections in November.
Scarborough Shoal is located 143 miles (230km) from the Philippines coast with overlapping claims over the territory by Manila, Beijing, and Taipei. In 2012, Chinese coastguard ships took control of the area after a tense stand-off with Philippine vessels.