Tensions are rising once again between China and its regional neighbors. With tensions already strained between Japan and China, one might have assumed that Beijing’s leaders would look to avoid stirring up any more tensions. Now, however, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has warned several countries it is currently in dispute with not to provoke China as The Philippines apparently did with its legal challenge to China’s disputed claims over the South China Seas.

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While Mr. Li had strong words for its South East Asian rivals, he also stressed that China was willing to cooperate and that China is committed to a peaceful solution. Neighboring countries have been growing increasingly wary of China’s military muscle and ambitions in the region.

The Philippines legal action enraging China

This past March The Philippines decided to take the battle for the South China Seas into a new arena by pursuing legal action against China in the United Nations. This move quickly enraged Chinese officials who were looking to keep the conflict out of any potential international courts. The Philippines submitted thousands of pages worth of evidence.

So far, the Chinese government has chosen to abstain from the legal proceedings which will now progress to a UN tribunal, which will then decide what the next steps should be. The Chinese government claims that this is a bilateral dispute and is not subject to UN intervention.

Just a few weeks ago the Chinese had taken to blockading a marooned ship The Philippines has been using as an outpost in the South China Seas. The Philippines was then forced to use air drops, even mounting a daring night run on the blockade to resupply the ship.

Ownership of South China Seas highly contested

China claims to have “indisputable sovereignty” over about 90% of the South China Seas and most of its islands and reefs. Problem is, that indisputable sovereignty often overlaps with the territorial claims of other nations. For example, China’s claims of the South China Seas overlap with about 80% of The Philippines UN-declared economic exclusion zone.

These exclusion zones have been laid out by the United Nations and international law, so it’s no wonder that The Philippines has sought arbitration in the UN itself. It’s also no wonder that China has sought to avoid arbitration in the United Nations as it stands a good chance of losing. China has also rejected similar arguments set forth by Vietnam.

Chinese aggression could spur ASEAN unity

China has one major advantage over its rivals. With the exception of Japan, most of the other nations with territorial disputes with care are smaller ASEAN nations. ASEAN refers to the collective of South East Asian nations and provides a loose regional coordination structure for all member states. So far, China has been very effective in using the divide and conquer strategy to keep ASEAN nations from banding together and presenting a united front to Chinese aggression.

China has thus far looked to resolve issues one-on-one with ASEAN nations. Meanwhile, China has used members of ASEAN not involved in the dispute, such as Cambodia and Laos, to hold up any attempts at unified action within the framework of ASEAN.

US could be drawn into the fold

Curbing Chinese expansion has taken priority for the American military. So far, the U.S. has focused on building alliances rather than expanding military force. The American government has flexed its muscles on a few cases, for example ignoring a no-fly zone in the East China Sea, where China is currently embroiled in a territorial dispute with Japan.

With China stepping up pressure on ASEAN, American military leaders may use this as an opportunity to build strong alliances with the various South East Asian states. Already, the United States is considering offers from the Philippines to expand its military presence in the country. With budget constraints at home, however, America may have its hands tied.