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.

A sector that's rapidly expanding, domotics - domus (home) plus robotics - are smart houses that manage temperature and lighting to minimize wasted electricity. For example, smart thermostats sense your presence and set the temperature according to your needs, saving 20% a year on heating bills. Watch this episode of Eni's Energy Shot series to learn how domotics save money and increase a home's value.

Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

More Show less

Listen: In a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer, Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert assesses the current state of the climate crisis and answers a simple question: how screwed are we? And as the climate continues to warm at a record pace, she unpacks some of the more extreme climate solutions that some increasingly desperate nations are starting to consider. Such measures may sound like stuff of science fiction (see: injecting sulfur particles into the atmosphere or shooting millions of tiny orbital mirrors into outer space) as times become more desperate, their appeal is growing. Can we fix the planet the same way we broke it?

China is making its neighbors nervous these days. Chinese fighter jets are screaming into Taiwan's airspace. Hundreds of armed Chinese "fishing boats" are plying the disputed waters of the South China Sea. And Beijing is slashing imports from some trading partners because of disputes over political issues.

To push back against this increasingly aggressive behavior, regional powers Japan, India, and Australia, together with the US, are boosting cooperation via a 17-year-old grouping called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply "The Quad." But how effectively can these four countries really work together to counter China? Eurasia Group's Peter Mumford discusses the Quad's future.

More Show less

Want to tackle climate change? If so you'll have to reach out to China, which is currently responsible for over a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions. Beijing will certainly take your call, as climate is a huge priority for President Xi Jinping.

Xi has promised that China will go "net zero" — meaning its carbon emissions will be offset by equal amounts of either natural or tech-driven carbon capture — by 2060. Is a decade later than most of the top 10 polluting countries fast enough for the rest of the world? It is for the Chinese, who want to help but have their own ideas about how.

More Show less

When will it be safe for the world's children to be vaccinated against COVID-19? The World Health Organization's chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, says that vaccines are being tested in children down to the age of six or even lower, and promises that data on children will be shared as soon as it's available. She also notes that there are not enough studies on transmission in schools, and the WHO has advised governments to prioritize schools "over other things like shopping malls or cinema halls or pubs." Dr. Swaminathan spoke with Ian Bremmer in an interview on GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting April 9. Check local listings.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Over the past half century, climate change has had an immense impact on the farmers who produce the food we eat. A new study by Cornell University shows that global warming has knocked 21 percent off of global agriculture productivity growth since 1965, equivalent to seven years of normal growth if humans had not polluted the planet. But not all countries have been affected in the same say. Farmers in warmer parts of the world have been hit hard as conditions grow more arid, but sub-polar regions in Canada or Siberia are now actually better for agriculture because they are not as cold as they used to be. Here we take a look at how climate has affected farming productivity growth around the world.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

Can "the Quad" constrain China?