After a summer of dramatic standoffs in the South China Sea, the past month has seen a return to diplomacy and negotiation in Southeast Asian relations.
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China and Vietnam are poised for confrontation over oil drilling in the southwestern portion of the South China Sea. Vietnam alleges that a Chinese survey vessel, Haiyang Dizhi 8, has been conducting an oil and gas survey within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) since July 2019.
From Sept. 2 to Sept. 6, the United States conducted its first-ever joint naval exercise with all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise (AUMX), co-led by the U.S. and Royal Thai navies, consisted of pre-sail activities in Thailand, Singapore and Brunei, as well as a sea phase in the South China Sea and other international waters around Southeast Asia.
A tense standoff in the waters southwest of Vietnam is about to enter its seventh week. Throughout May and June, Chinese Coast Guard vessels aggressively patrolled around Malaysian and Vietnamese oil drilling platforms.
Philippine and Chinese officials will launch a joint investigation into the at-sea collision that left 22 Filipino fishermen stranded in the South China Sea. On June 9—the official Philippines-China Friendship Day—a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Philippine fishing vessel near Reed Bank (known in Tagalog as Recto Bank), northeast of the Spratly Islands, and reportedly fled after the collision. A Vietnamese fishing vessel later rescued the Filipino crew members who had been left in the water.
The Shangri-La Dialogue, the highest profile annual security forum in Asia, was held from May 31 to June 2 in Singapore. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered an opening speech that received widespread praise from Chinese netizens for its “objective analysis” of Sino-U.S. ties.
In the first weeks of May, U.S. vessels have been busy all over the South China Sea, drawing China’s ire and frustration. From May 2 to May 8, the destroyer USS William P. Lawrence joined ships from the Philippines, India and Japan in transiting through the South China Sea, performing formation exercises and other low-profile drills during the voyage.
Despite a diplomatic row between China and the Philippines, U.S. and Philippine military officials denied that their recent military exercise was a response to Chinese threats.
Tensions around the contested island of Thitu (Tagalog: Pag-asa; Chinese: Zhongye) are escalating as China and the Philippines continue to press their claims. In March, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) and other observers counted up to 275 Chinese vessels near Thitu, up from December’s high of 95.
From December through at least February, China deployed a fleet of vessels to the area around Thitu Island (called Pag-Asa Island in the Philippines), the largest of nine features claimed by the Philippines in the Spratly Islands, according to satellite analysis conducted by the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) and reports from local fishing vessels.