Chinese warships refloated a Chinese military frigate Sunday that grounded July 11th near a disputed shoal 70 miles off the shore of the Philippine province of Palawan. It was the latest standoff between China and its neighbors who have staked claims to these potentially gas- and oil-rich shoals.
Most of the shoals barely peak above the sea, yet it's whats underneath that has left foreign investors salivating and led to tense standoffs between the navies in the region. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines have all staked claims to shoals and reefs that make up the island chains throughout the South China Sea and stand to make whatever country owns them very rich.
China is seen as the bully in the region repeatedly sending military ships on patrols near these shoals. For its part, the U.S. has butted into this dispute holding recent exercises with the Philippine and Vietnam navies. Similarly, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made a much publicized trip through Southeast Asia in June. During a stop in Vietnam he announced the U.S. would increase the percentage of naval ships it deploys to the Pacific region from 50 to 60 percent by 2020.
The announcement falls in line with the new U.S. defense strategy that further emphasizes the Pacific. Some defense analysts even questioned if Panetta's trip was spurred by tensions that have built up in the South China Sea.
In April, a standoff occurred when a Philippine warship caught Chinese fishermen sailing next to the Scarborough Shoal, another disputed shoal both countries have claimed. Two Chinese warships sailed to the fishermen's defense cutting off access to the shoal to the Philippine navy.
Eventually, cooler heads prevailed, but the incident has sparked only further questions about this most recent Chinese frigate's grounding. There were even reports in the Philippines that the Chinese deliberately grounded the frigate to set up a military outpost near the disputed Half Moon Shoal.
Despite being allies with the Philippines, the U.S. has conveniently remained on the fringe of full support for the Philippine government in their territorial claims of these shoals and reefs. The U.S. continues to provide support, though, with their naval presence.
In the midst of this most recent standoff, the USS George Washington aircraft carrier made a routine port visit in Hong Kong after exercises with the Japanese and South Korean navies. Analysts say the countries in the region will become even more dependent on the U.S. to increase their naval presence as these South China Sea standoffs persist over territorial claims.