Beijing strengthens its control over the South China Sea with a large number of ships

A satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows Chinese ships gathering at Whitsun Reef in the disputed South China Sea on March 23, 2021. (©2021 Maxar Technologies via AP)

Not long ago, the Chinese Communist Party vowed sovereignty over the South China Sea by building artificial islands in its disputed waters. Now, the CCP’s new strategy is to keep a large number of fishing boats anchored in the disputed waters, effectively ignoring eviction orders from other countries.

The New York Times reported on Sunday (April 4) that the CCP is doing this to achieve goals that cannot be achieved through diplomacy or international law, and to some extent, it appears to be working.

In the report, Greg Poling, head of the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), discusses his views. He said, “Beijing clearly believes that if it uses enough coercion and pressure over a long enough period of time, it can squeeze the Southeast Asians out.”

Such tactics, Poling said, “are insidious.”

The report said the Communist Party’s move reflects its growing confidence under Xi Jinping. They could test it against the Biden administration and the Communist Party’s neighbors in the South China Sea, who are increasingly dependent on the Communist Party’s economy and the supply of new coronavirus vaccines.

One day in March, 220 Chinese fishing boats anchored at Whitsunday Reef to take shelter from a storm. Their move sparked protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, which also claim sovereignty over the waters. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called the Chinese Communist Party’s move “a clear provocation.” Vietnam’s foreign ministry accused the Chinese Communist Party of violating its sovereignty and asked the ships to leave.

Satellite images taken by Colorado-based Maxar Technologies show that some ships have left in the past week, but a large number remain, the report said. Other ships moved to another reef just a few miles away, while another 45 Chinese communist ships swarmed near Thitu, another Philippine-controlled island 100 miles north of Holy Spirit Reef, according to satellite images and Philippine officials.

Such a buildup of ships heightens regional tensions and could become a point of growing confrontation between the U.S. and China, as with Taiwan, the report said. The U.S. has not yet taken a position on the South China Sea dispute, but has criticized the Communist Party’s aggressive tactics there, including the militarization of bases. In recent years, the United States has sent Navy ships on routine cruises to challenge the Chinese Communist Party’s alleged right to restrict any military activity – three such cruises since President Biden took office in January.

Secretary of State Blinken expressed support for the Philippines over the presence of the Chinese Communist Party ships. In a tweet, he wrote, “We will always stand by our allies and defend a rules-based international order.”

The New York Times reported that such a buildup of ships underscores the further erosion of Philippine control over disputed waters, which could become a problem for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Critics say the Chinese Communist Party’s disregard for Philippine sovereignty claims reflects the failure of Duterte’s efforts to curry favor with Beijing’s leadership.