The United States and Philippines have started joint naval manoeuvres as the diplomatic row between Manila and Beijing continues over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea go way back. The riparian states - Malaysia, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Brunei - lay claim to some of the same islands and reefs there.
China lays claim to almost all of the territories in the South China Sea. That led in 1974 to a military conflict between China and Vietnam over the Paracel Islands. Now the Islands, which are called Xisha in Chinese and Hoang Sa in Vietnamese, are administered by China, although Vietnam still claims the islands as part of its territory.
The most recent territorial dispute has been between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Reef, which the Chinese call Huangyan Island and the Filipinos call Panatag Shoal. At the beginning of April, it came to a standoff between Chinese fish trawlers and Philippine navy. Though the ships involved in the conflict have left the area - including the Chinese fisher boats along with their illegal catches, as Manila termed it -the situation remains tense.
Two Chinese reconnaissance ships, a Philippine coastguard ship, and a Philippine vessel searching for sunken ships were still in the area on Wednesday, April 18, when both governments summoned each other's ambassadors.
Beijing demanded Manila remove its ships immediately, so that "peace and stability could be restored to the Huangyan Island," said a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry.
Beijing maintains the reef has been part of its territory since it was discovered in the 13th century and named. Manila rejects the claim and points out that the area is within the Philippines' internationally recognized 200 sea mile economic zone. The reef is around 124 nautical miles (230 kilometers) away from the northern Filipino island Luzon. The nearest part of the Chinese mainland is over four times that distance.
Manila offered to resolve the issue at the International Maritime Court. But according to Stefan Talmon, an international law expert, Beijing does not have to accept. He believes the question over who has rights to the contested area will have to be negotiated.
With regards to its military inferiority to Beijing, Manila, however, is not keen on finding a solution to the dispute by means of negotiation.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed last November while on board the USS Fitzgerald in Manila Bay the strong military ties between Washington and Manila and promised support in "deterring provocation from the full spectrum of state and nonstate actors." In a conference with her Filipino counterpart Albert del Rosario, she said: "Any nation with a claim has the right to exert it, but they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion."
Coveted natural resources
On Monday, April 16, joint maneuvers began off the coast of Palawan Island, near the hotly contested Spratly Islands - to which China, Vietnam and the Philippines lay claim.
The area is rich in natural resources. Various estimates put the amount of crude oil under the South China Sea at up to 230 billion barrels - 60 times China's annual consumption. Last March, Chinese ships dispelled the ship of a British energy company, which had been commissioned by the Philippines to search for gas resources. And recently, Beijing issued a warning to Russian and Indian oil exploration companies which had been invited by Vietnam that they would do well to stay out of the South China Sea.
Author: Hans Spross / sb
Editor: Shamil Shams