South China Sea on a Boil
Philippines Turns Down Talks Amidst Chinese “Combat Air Patrols”

Following the Hague ruling, the Obama Administration reportedly sent out “private diplomatic messages to the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and other Asian nations urging them to exercise restraint”. Beijing, unsurprisingly, has responded with less restraint, The New York Times reports:

China said Monday that it had begun what would become regular military air patrols over disputed islands and shoals of the South China Sea, highlighting its claim to the vast area a week after an international tribunal said Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis.

China’s air force flew a “combat air patrol” over the South China Sea “recently,” Xinhua, the official news agency, reported, citing Shen Jinke, an air force spokesman. The patrol consisted of bombers, fighters, “scouts” and tankers and would become “regular practice,” Mr. Shen said, according to Xinhua.

The announcement of the air patrols, plus a separate statement that China would conduct military exercises in the South China Sea off the coast of Hainan Island, came as Adm. John M. Richardson, the chief of United States naval operations, was in Beijing to discuss the South China Sea and other issues that arose after the tribunal rebuked China’s claims over the waters on July 12.

To be sure, crowded airspace raises the specter of some potentially disastrous scenarios and demonstrate China’s ability to flaunt international law and American naval supremacy. But the short-term consequences don’t appear so good for Beijing: the muscle flexing apparently didn’t help its overtures to the Philippines for an alternative, bilateral settlement to the disputes. Reuters reports:

The Philippines has turned down a Chinese proposal to start bilateral talks on their South China Sea dispute, its foreign minister said on Tuesday, because of Beijing’s pre-condition of not discussing a court ruling that nullified most of its claims.

Despite Beijing’s offer to “meet halfway” and earlier displays of interest in negotiations from President Duterte, the Philippines now seems to leaning toward taking a stand. But that will only be possible if the United States is willing to stand firmly by Manila’s side. The question is whether a White House that, as Michael Green wrote for TAI over the weekend, has “micromanaged and limited freedom of navigation operations” for most of its tenure will be willing to use more force and diplomacy.

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