South China Sea warning: ‘Miscalculation’ all it takes to spark all-out conflict in region

China has made its intentions clear after claiming to own the entirety of the South China Sea. But the Philippines, Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam have competing for claims of sovereignty in the disputed water, a conduit for goods in excess of $3trillion (£2.2trillion) every year. Bill Hayton, an Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, has explained how conflict could be sparked in the region despite all sides knowing how “disastrous” it would be.

Speaking to, Mr Hayton said: “I think everybody on all sides knows that a conflict would be disastrous but people are still trying to push it to the edge to show how serious they are and to dare the other side into trying to do something that might cause a conflict.

“It’s a tricky time.

“I think everybody knows what’s at stake.

“The risk of course is a miscalculation or an act by an individual fishing boat captain could end up triggering something that brings much bigger powers into play.

“That’s really the risk that something unexpected might happen.

“The other risk is China might decide to make a big power play and have a confrontation with another navy and that really could cause trouble.”

It comes as Filipino fisherman Randy Megu has often braved the storms that spring up in the South China Sea, but these days he has a greater fear: seeing a Chinese maritime enforcement vessel on the horizon.

Five years after a landmark international arbitration court ruling repudiated China’s claims to the waters where Megu fishes, the 48-year-old complains that his encounters with Chinese boats are more frequent than ever.

“I was so scared,” said Megu, describing how a Chinese vessel had tracked his wooden outrigger boat for three hours some 140 nautical miles (260 km) from the coast in May.

a couple of military men standing next to a body of water: South China Sea news

                                 © GETTY South China Sea news

He said other fishermen had reported being rammed or blasted with water cannons while working in what they considered their historic fishing grounds – which they had hoped to secure after the ruling in The Hague in 2016.

China rejected the ruling and has stood by its claim to most of the waters within a so-called Nine-Dash Line, which is also contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

map: South China Sea news

                                                                       © EXPRESS South China Sea news

In just one incident in March, the Philippines complained of incursions by what it said were more than 200 Chinese militia vessels into the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles from its coast.

Chinese diplomats said the boats were sheltering from rough seas and no militia were aboard.

“The data here is very clear,” said Greg Poling of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Chinese Coast Guard ships and the militia are in the Philippines’ EEZ more than they were five years ago.”


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