The crisis in the relations between China and the Philippines has been balancing on the edge of a military conflict for more than a month. China managed to find a way out of the problem. However, the crisis still remains unsolved. Moreover, the Philippines tries to have the USA involved in the conflict (there is The Mutual Defense Treaty Between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America, signed on August 30, 1951). China in its turn wants to win Russia's support. The two countries conducted large-scale military drills in the Yellow Sea during the peak of the conflict.
The situation began to escalate in the South China Sea on April 10, when a Philippine warship detected Chinese fishing boats near the disputed island of Huangyan. Philippine servicemen attempted to inspect the holds of the Chinese vessel. However, Chinese military boats arrived at the scene very soon and blocked the Philippine warship.
China claims that its sovereignty over the island is based on the fact that it was China, who discovered the island in 1279 during the reign of the Yuan Dynasty (1291-1368). In addition, China substantiates its territorial claims with three international agreements. It goes about the Paris Peace Treaty between the USA and Spain from 1898, the Washington agreements between Spain and the USA from 1900 and the agreement between Britain and the USA from 1930, where the boundaries of Philippines territorial waters were limited to the 118th meridian of eastern longitude Greenwich.
In 1898, after the Spanish-American War, Spain delivered the Philippines, Cuba, Guam and Puerto-Rico to the United States for $20 million in accordance with the Paris Peace Treaty from 1898.
To counter China's arguments, the Philippines rely on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea from 1982. The document set the sea border of the economic zone of the country at the distance of 200 miles. In this context, the above-mentioned disputed island is located only 230 kilometers far from Luson Island - the main island of the Philippines. The country's administration raised the question of the sovereignty of the island in July 2011. The country has been taking measures to solve the problem since that time.
There were new adequate maps published, discussions were conducted at the parliament. Now the government has ventured to stand up and struggle openly. Having expressed concerns on the diplomatic level, the Philippines and the USA joined forces to conduct military drills in the water area of the disputed island. There were two aircraft carriers, two warships, 4,500 US and 2,300 Philippine servicemen participating in the drills that started on April 16 and ended April 27.
The Chinese responded. On April 23, they also started large-scale drills in the Yellow Sea, albeit with the participation of the Russian navy. There were 25 various vessels involved in total, as well as 13 aircraft, nine helicopters and two special military units.
Was it the beginning of the new standoff within the scope of the Cold War? The Cold War has started indeed. All the doubts about it have disappeared after Russia's Putin and USA's Obama refused to attend international forums on the territory of the "partner" state.
No one has probably noticed that, but the world was standing on the brink of a new international armed conflict in April. Chinese bloggers were posting messages on the Internet saying that units of the Chinese army were set on high alert (the second level on four-level scale).
Major General Luo Yuan of China's People's Liberation Army stated that China favored a diplomatic solution of the conflict while there is a chance for reconciliation. However, the official added, it did not mean that China refused from military methods of solving the problem. The neighboring states, the general said, should think about the consequences, when they decide to scoff at China.
Moreover, a Chinese TV host said on one of the country's central channels that the Philippines were the Chinese territory.
Afterwards, the Chinese Embassy in Manila made an announcement about "mass anti-Chinese demonstrations." Chinese airlines halved the number of flights over the "drop in the tourist flow to the Philippines," Xinhua agency reported. To crown it all, an official spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry called upon the Philippines to respect China's territorial sovereignty and to refrain from the actions which could aggravate the situation. Beijing was prepared for any form of the escalation of the standoff, the official added.
Against such a background, the minister for foreign affairs and the defense minister of the Philippines flew to Washington in the beginning of May. In the US capital, the officials conducted the meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Most likely, the US officials asked their Philippine counterparts to slow down with their ambitions.
Clinton stated as a result of the meeting that the USA would not be taking anyone's part in the conflict in the South China Sea. That was obviously only verbal distancing because the USA and the Philippines are members of the mutual defense treaty. Under this treaty, the two countries undertake to defend each other both in case of external aggression against their territories and in the Pacific region on the whole.
The US, being an ally of the Philippines, will not be sitting on its hands if China conducts a military operation. This is what the majority of Philippines politicians say, and they want to check both sides. They want to find out whether the Chinese are ready to launch combat actions, and if the Americans are ready to support the Philippines in the military conflict. However, Washington has already conducted a provocative operation like that in South Ossetia. It did not work with Russia, and it may not work with China either. China also has the sad experience of the struggle for Taiwan.
The situation improved after China's department for fishing announced a ban on fishing for 2.5 months in the northern part of the South China Sea, including the waters around Huangyan Island.
The Philippines do not fish in the area, so the ban touches upon 90,000 Chinese fishing boats. A Chinese official assured that it as a common measure that the Chinese authorities take every year. The move, he added, had nothing in common with the current escalation in the dispute. It is clear, though, that the decision is directly related to the problem. In addition, China's Defense ministry officially rebutted the information saying that Chinese military units and navy had been set on high alert.
The problem is not going to vanish by itself, of course. China rejects the suggestion from the Philippines to go to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or to the UN. Chinese officials say that the laws about the redistribution of spheres of influence between colonial powers were not retroactive. No international agreements can abolish such laws, Chinese politicians claim.
A lot will depend on the position of the United States that has been neutral so far. However, China's strategic growth raises serious concerns with Washington. In the event the country refuses from Deng Xiaoping's strategy of waiting in the shadow, then the Celestial Empire will become serious competition for Washington both economically and politically. There is something to struggle for indeed. The shelf of the disputed islands is rich with oil and gas.