China makes a big move in the South China Sea

China makes a big move in the South China Sea

The Philippines on Monday demanded China withdraw a massive fishing fleet — presumably commanded by the Chinese navy — from waters that Manila has exclusive economic rights over in the South China Sea. Beijing, unsurprisingly, denied any involvement. But there's more to the latest milestone in China's increasingly aggressive strategy to assert its claims in one of the world's most disputed waterways.


"Little blue men." One of China's preferred tactics to win control of the South China Sea without a fight is by deploying its armed maritime militia to do the dirty work for its navy under the guise of "fishing." Their members have been dubbed China's "little blue men" because their role is similar to that of Vladimir Putin's famous "little green men," the Russian soldiers without official insignias who invaded eastern Ukraine on behalf of Moscow in 2014.

Having members of the Chinese navy masquerade as fisherfolk in the South China Sea is nothing new. What's different this time is the sheer scale of the flotilla: a whopping 220 vessels, no match for the ill-equipped Philippine navy and coast guard, not to mention the local fishing boats who have long complained of China chasing them out of their own waters.

China is winning in the South China Sea. For decades, China has claimed indisputable maritime rights to almost the entire South China Sea, the main commercial and navigation gateway to East Asia. About one-third of global shipping passes through these waters, which are also believed to be immensely rich in fisheries and (largely untapped) hydrocarbons. That's why the Chinese will do whatever it takes to control these waters, parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

As China's power has risen in recent years, so too has Beijing's determination to assert its dominance over the South China Sea. All attempts by other claimants and the US navy to challenge its provocative actions — such as building military facilities on artificial islands, disrupting freedom of navigation operations, and depleting local fish stocks — have all failed to deter China.

The US, the only individual nation with the military muscle to pose a threat to China, is no longer a major player in the dispute. Last summer, Washington recognized a 2016 international ruling — in response to a lawsuit filed by the Philippines — that struck down China's sovereignty claims (Beijing rejects the verdict). But both sides know that Americans have little appetite to go to war with China, let alone over a body of water halfway around the world.

Duterte and China. The latest incident with China in the South China Sea has put Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in a bind. The otherwise tough-talking leader is notorious for his soft-spoken deference towards China, arguing that the Philippines is too weak to risk a confrontation with such a mighty rival.

Many Filipinos who view China with growing distrust oppose Duterte's perceived kowtowing to Beijing in exchange for Chinese investment to fix the country's dilapidated infrastructure. The promise of that much-needed cash explains his reluctance to raise the 2016 ruling with Beijing, and consent to jointly explore for oil and gas in disputed areas.

But this time Duterte has at least two reasons to show he's not Xi Jinping's puppet. Although his personal approval ratings remain high, the government has faced strong criticism for its dismal pandemic response, and for delaying the country's vaccine rollout by prioritizing Chinese-made COVID vaccines over others. Also, relations with China will likely become a major campaign issue in the May 2022 election (where Duterte himself could be on the ballot as a candidate for vice president to skirt the presidential one-term limit).

What happens next? The ailing Philippine economy is so dependent on Chinese trade that it seems unlikely Duterte will take any significant action to counter Beijing's latest swipe, no matter the political risk. And with Washington having more pressing issues to sort out with Beijing these days, China's "little blue men" are set to rule the waves in the South China Sea.

Ken Burns discusses Muhammad Ali's background and how the journey of boxing's greatest champion is just as relevant today—in sport, culture and beyond.

"He is speaking to us with a kind of force and clarity...that to me is just so enduring." - Ken Burns

In a frank (and in-person!) interview, António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, speaks with Ian Bremmer at the UN ahead of the annual General Assembly week. Guterres discusses COVID, climate, the US-China rift, and the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, and does not mince words when it comes to the dire state of the world. "We are standing at the edge of an abyss," Guterres warns. COVID is "defeating" the global community and a climate catastrophe is all but assured without drastic action. Amidst this unprecedented peril, there remains a startling lack of trust among nations. And yet, there is still hope.

No country in the Western Hemisphere is more closely associated with disaster and misery than the Caribbean nation of Haiti. Its latest upheaval centers on news that the country's top prosecutor wants Haiti's prime minister to answer questions about the murder of the president in July. Haiti is again locked in a power struggle among competing factions within its ruling elite.

Why is Haiti still so poor and disaster-prone?

More Show less

For Michael Chertoff, former US secretary of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009, the fact that America has not experienced a single attack by foreign terrorists since 9/11 proves that the US was "successful" in its strategy to prevent terrorism. That "was not [an] accident and there was a deterrent effect to be honest — had we been lax, more would have tried." Although he admits the US government wasn't transparent enough about the intelligence it was collecting, Chertoff credits US intelligence agencies with helping to foil the plot to blow up airplanes mid-air from Heathrow to the US in 2006. The US mission in Iraq, or what came after was not clearly thought out, according to Michael Chertoff, who served as the Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush. The Iraq war made it difficult to focus on the US mission in Afghanistan and absorbed resources that could have been used more effectively elsewhere, he said.

Watch the full episode: Is America safer since 9/11?

Listen: In a frank interview on the GZERO World podcast, António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, speaks with Ian Bremmer at the UN ahead of the annual General Assembly week. Guterres discusses COVID, climate, the US-China rift, and the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, and does not mince words when it comes to the dire state of the world. "We are standing at the edge of an abyss," Guterres warns. COVID is "defeating" the global community and a climate catastrophe is all but assured without drastic action. Amidst this unprecedented peril, there remains a startling lack of trust among nations. And yet, there is still hope.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.


"Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still." — Harry S. Truman

The former US president's warning feels particularly prescient as world leaders prepare to gather at the 76th United National General Assembly in New York City, the first such in-person event in over 18 months. The importance of apt leadership in determining societies' ability to cope — and survive — has been on full display since COVID-19 enveloped the globe, decimating communities and killing some 4.5 million people.

More Show less

As the 76th UN General Assembly gets underway, dealing with the pandemic is still the top priority for world leaders. But for John Frank, vice president of UN Global Affairs at Microsoft, COVID is not the only major challenge the world faces today.

One of them — included in the UN Secretary-General's new Common Agenda for strong, inclusive pandemic recovery — is a different way to measure economic growth beyond the traditional productivity-led GDP model by taking more into account the cost of pollution, one of the main causes of climate change.

More Show less

For UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the pandemic has made the world even more divided than it was before COVID. That's especially true on climate, in his view, because rich and poor countries simply don't trust each other anymore. If we want COP26 to succeed, Guterres says we must rebuild that trust — or face the consequences of inaction. "If you are on the verge of an abyss, you must be careful about your next step." Watch his interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World.

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

UNGA 76: Vaccines, climate, crises

Coronavirus

UN Chief: Still time to avert climate “abyss”

GZERO World Clips

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal