“Leave now!” : An unprecedented incident in the South China Sea

A fresh incident on Thursday pitted China and the Philippines against the Spratly Islands, a vast collection of islands, reefs and sandbars in the South China Sea that are claimed in whole or in part by several countries in the region. What was original this time was that the Philippine Coast Guard aircraft involved carried the journalists, while the press is usually kept away to reduce tension.

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“You’ve infiltrated [dans les eaux bordant] A Chinese rock and security threat. To avoid any misunderstanding, leave immediately!”, according to Agence France Presse (AFP), which was part of the embedded media, ordered the radio operator of the Chinese ship, located a thousand meters below the Philippine plane’s address. The pilot replied that the plane was flying over the mainland of the Philippines, more precisely an island and a sandbar occupied by Manila.

A strong Chinese presence

The People’s Republic of China has always claimed all of the Spratlys, thousands of kilometers from its coast, but in the past decade has significantly strengthened its claims by occupying, developing and militarizing several artificially augmented islands. The incidents have mainly pitted the Chinese against the Vietnamese, but recently, as Beijing has stretched its grip, they have increasingly joined the Filipinos, whose access to their ancestral fishing grounds is now blocked.

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In July 2016, the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague, captured by Manila, issued a ruling totally unfavorable to China, which the latter chose to ignore. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the time wanted to save his country’s first trading partner, but his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., refused to sell the national territory.

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However, the balance of power is unequal. During the flight over Philippines-claimed Sabina Atoll and Thitu Island, the AFP stationed no less than thirty Chinese ships in the area to prevent any intrusion.

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