A new Philippine law reasserting Manila's claim to disputed islands in the South China Sea has rankled its neighbors, drawing criticisms from Vietnam, Taiwan and China. Earlier this week, China sent a patrol boat to the South China Sea, once again highlighting why the area has long been considered one of Asia's flashpoints.
Philippine President Gloria Arroyo signed the Baselines Law, last week, without fanfare. However, reaction from the country's neighbors have been swift and scathing. The law defines the extent of what the Philippines' considers its exclusive economic zone and reaffirmed claims to the disputed Spratly Islands, off its western seaboard.
Vietnam called it a "serious" violation of its sovereignty over the islands. China criticizes the claim as illegal and stresses that Beijing has what it calls "indisputable sovereignty" over the islands and its adjacent waters.
Sunday, China dispatched a patrol boat to the area. China's move came in the wake of a confrontation in the South China Sea between an American naval ship and Chinese vessels. Beijing claims the U.S. ship entered its exclusive economic zone; Washington says it was in international waters.
These incidents have again highlighted the problematic territorial delineation in the South China Sea and the potential outbreak of conflict in the area.
"When you actually do put it together with the clashes between the Chinese and the U.S. ships, it does highlight, I think, the whole spectrum of potential maritime instability in the area," said Sam Bateman, a maritime security analyst at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, in Singapore. "There are a lot of country interests in the South China Sea and it's a very sensitive area."
The South China Sea stretches 1.7 million square kilometers, with more than 200 mostly uninhabitable islands, rocks and reefs. Aside from being a major shipping lane, it is also believed to be rich in oil and gas.
China claims a wide swathe of the South China Sea, extending far south from the mainland. Its exclusive economic zone overlaps with that of Vietnam and the Philippines. As China consumes more energy and as its naval capability grows, analysts say Beijing is likely to be more assertive in defending its exclusive economic zone.
Few nations along the South China Sea have the capability to match China's military.
Philippine National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales says the Philippines is protecting its national interests. He says China's decision to send a patrol boat to the area is not surprising, because it is also acting in accordance to its national interest.
Based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, exclusive economic zones extend some 370 kilometers from a state's coast. Within the EEZ, coastal countries have the right to explore and exploit natural resources and have jurisdiction over establishment of artificial islands, marine scientific research and protection of the marine environment.
Other states are allowed to conduct activities in the EEZ with "due regard" to the rights and duties of the coastal state.
But countries interpret this differently, as in the recent incident between the U.S. and China, as Bateman explains.
"Another part of the Chinese argument would be that, another state conducting activities in an exclusive economic zone of a coastal state, in this case the United States conducting activities in China's EEZ, is supposed to not conduct activities in the coastal state's EEZ that might be perceived as being contrary or prejudicial to the security and national defense of the coastal state," said Bateman. "The United States argues that defense activities are acceptable under international law."
That incident underscored long-held fears of potential military clashes resulting from disagreements on exclusive economic zones. A brief naval battle between China and Vietnam broke out in 1988 about the Spratlys. Some 70 Vietnamese sailors died. Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also claim the Spratlys.
Bateman says confidence-building measures and multilateral engagement are important in preventing any maritime conflict in the region.
"The South China Sea, at this stage, is generally being managed by their countries with respect to the fact that nobody wants to see open conflict break out," he said.
To prevent hostilities, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China signed a declaration of conduct in the South China Sea in 2002.
Gonzales says the Philippines is committed to the agreement and that the dispute should be resolved through dialogue.
The leaders of ASEAN and their dialogue partners, including China, will hold their annual summit next month in Thailand. Smoothing out territorial issues is expected to be on the agenda.