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Asia and Pacific

South Asian Sea and the Chinese Coastguard

Just three weeks ago, a Chinese Coast Guard ship purposely rammed a Filipino vessel on the open ocean just 100 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines. The incident marked the first time in recent years that a Chinese Coast Guard ship had done physical damage to a foreign nation's ship. For years, the Chinese Coast Guard and civilian Chinese naval militias have harassed and effectively blockaded Filipino ships from accessing this area of the South China Sea in an attempt to assert control over the area. The incident is one of many occurrences that demonstrate a pattern of belligerent behavior by the Chinese military. Such a pattern proves the need for the United States and its allies to maintain and reinforce its commitment to territorial sovereignty as defined by international law by strengthening alliances and presence in the region.

For years, China has claimed historical rights to roughly 80% of the South China Sea. Its claim is often referred to as the "9-Dash Line", a marking on the map that shows China's possession of a large swath of the South China Sea. This 9-Dash Line is intentionally vague, as it allows China to claim almost the entirety of the region as its sovereign territory, despite the contrary ruling of international law. Though China's claim to the South China Sea was ruled illegitimate and in violation of the UN's Convention on the Law of the Sea in 2016, Chinese Coast Guard vessels and civilian militias have continued to harass and even blockade other country's sovereign territory and ships in the region. Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are all countries that have territorial disagreements with China in the South China Sea and thus receive constant naval harassment like the one that occurred a few weeks ago off the coast of the Philippines.

In addition to this harassment, China has constructed artificial islands on top of shallow reefs throughout the South China Sea to assert its military power in the region further. Since 2013 alone, over 3,200 acres of artificial islands have been constructed. These islands have been armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, advanced radar systems, and even a few small runways capable of hosting over 70 attack aircraft. This large military presence is deployed to this region to bully other smaller countries, whose navies and maritime operations simply cannot compete with China's. Because its territorial claim to the South China Sea is not backed by international law, Beijing knows it must use military force to assert its claim. While only growing in size and capabilities, China will only continue to use military hard power in the region to bully other countries out of what is legally theirs.

The continual harassment of naval vessels and the construction of artificial islands in the area are relevant not only to the countries of SouthEast Asia but throughout the world. With over 30% of the world's shipping trade flowing through this area (3), the South China Sea acts as an arterial trade route for the world economy. Military action or instability within the region would have massive implications on the world economy, thus making it imperative for the United States and its allies to defend.

As recent events like the War in Ukraine and the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas have shown us, it is evident that belligerent actors will use military force when opportunity presents itself and consequences seem minimal. Thus, peace is only attained through strong deterrence. The United States needs to coordinate with its regional allies like the Philippines, Japan, and Taiwan to demonstrate a commitment to international law through a strong military presence. One of the ways that the United States and its allies can bring greater stability to the region is by conducting more Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. These operations include sailing American warships through areas illegally claimed by other countries to demonstrate solidarity with the international laws of the sea. What is most important is that these operations are conducted jointly with American allies to show regional unity, rather than a purely American agenda. In addition, the United States needs to use its influence in the region to invite other Asian countries to participate in military exercises. Other nations feel threatened by China's aggression and the United States has a unique opportunity to coordinate any level of cooperation between neighboring countries.

Even without the United States's initiative, Japan and the Philippines are planning on making large steps in their partnership, cooperation undoubtedly inspired by the recent collision incident off the Philippine coast. On November 4th, Japan's Prime Minister Fumino Kishida made comments highlighting Japan's vision to stand with the Philippines in its territorial disputes against China. Just this year, Japan observed US-Philippine military drills and even conducted a first-ever joint coast guard training operation with the Philippine Coast Guard. In his recent speech, Kishida even called for a trilateral partnership between Japan, the Philippines, and the United States to support each other militarily against any encroachment of sovereign territory. Such comments and actions reflect the growing sentiment in East and SouthEast Asia that combatting China's aggression will require interstate cooperation, something that the United States must take advantage of.

As an influential military and economic partner to the region, the United States has an opportunity to use its power to unite regional partners further in order to create greater stability in the South China Sea. China will undoubtedly find any military alliances and cooperations

as threatening, potentially worsening relations that have already begun to sour. However, the greatest way to prevent escalation and conflict in the region is to demonstrate an early commitment to international laws through a capable force. It is within the U.S. and its allies' best interests to show that Beijing's current strategy of bullying neighboring countries with military force is simply an untenable one. With the U.S. and our allies enforcing international law, China has no choice but to cooperate through international systems and norms, a concept that is unquestionably more beneficial for all parties.