BEACH ASSAULT: Filipino and U.S. marines on a reconnaissance boat ride during a beach assault exercise facing the South China Sea in San Antonio Town, Zambales Province, near the main Philippine Luzon Island on May 9 (CFP)
Even though China exercised restraint in the face of recent provocations by the Philippines and Viet Nam in the South China Sea, Beijing did not gain the goodwill of the two Southeast Asian countries in response. Disregarding China's opposition, the Philippines charged nine of the 11 Chinese fishermen seized by its police while fishing in waters off Half Moon Shoal, which is under China's jurisdiction. And Viet Nam has continued to stir up nationalist sentiment against China, aiming to pressure Beijing into discontinuing a Chinese oil company's drilling operations in waters off China's Xisha Islands.
However, the current tensions in the South China Sea are neither incidental nor coincidental. Observers have noted that as the United States continues efforts to shift its focus to the Asia-Pacific, some regional countries are exploiting the situation to meet their own agenda. Actions taken by the United States to beef up military ties with its regional allies have also taken a toll on regional stability, with irresponsible remarks by U.S. officials regarding the incidents further complicating settlement of the disputes.
Fishing for trouble
On May 6, the Philippine police detained a Chinese fishing boat Qiongqionghai 09063 and the 11 Chinese fishermen on board in waters off Half Moon Shoal of the Nansha Islands, two days after Manila and Washington launched their annual "shoulder to shoulder" military exercise.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry urged the Philippines to release the detained fishermen and their boat as the Half Moon Shoal is traditionally a major Chinese fishing base and China has undisputable sovereign rights over the area. However, the Philippine side ignored China's request and charged the fishermen with poaching endangered turtle species.
Luo Yuan, a retired major general and Executive Vice President of the Beijing-based China Strategic Culture Promotion Association, believed that the move taken by the Philippines is in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In a recent article published on the Chinese news outlet Global Times, Luo commented that if the fishermen were poaching endangered species around the Half Moon Shoal, the Philippines should have informed China, as the waters are under China's jurisdiction. The Philippine side had no right to make the arrests, he added.
Wang Xiaopeng, a sea waters researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said the Philippines is exploiting its alliance with the United States in the midst of its "pivot-to-Asia" strategy.
"The incident happened shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama's latest trip to Manila, so it's clear that the Philippines aims to lure the United States into its maritime disputes with China to test whether Washington is committed to strengthening military ties," Wang said.
During Obama's visit, Washington and Manila signed a 10-year-long Mutual Defense Treaty to increase the U.S. troop presence in the Southeast Asian country. Obama also pledged "ironclad" backing for the Philippines.