Earlier this year the Obama administration issued a "red line" declaration to China warning that there would be severe consequences if Beijing sought to reclaim the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines despite a number of defense analysts predicting that Xi Jinping’s government planned to do just that in the heart of the US election season when politics would be placed above international affairs.
The disputed shoal sits at the heart of the South China Sea territorial dispute between China and the Philippines who sought a declaration from The Hague international tribunal to invalidate Beijing’s longstanding claim to the territory and much of the surrounding waters. The basis of that decision, in large part, was Manila’s control of the shoal and the decision, which China has denounced, would rip waters from Beijing’s control through which 40% of the world’s shipborne trade transits through.
On Sunday, the Philippines rang the alarm over what they perceive as a move by China to begin the process of reclaiming the shoal while the world is distracted with the G-20 Summit after Filipino surveillance aircraft spotted an increasing number of Chinese vessels – much more than Beijing has maintained since seizing the shoal after a 2012 standoff according to Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
"There were four Chinese coastguard ships and six other vessels, including blue-colored barges, around Scarborough Shoal," he said in a text message to reporters. "The presence of many ships other than coastguard in the area is a cause of grave concern."
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has demanded that China abide by the international tribunal ruling, but also said that he would not raise the issue during the G-20 summit. The bombastic Filipino leader has said that if China were to invade the shoal that his country was prepared to engage in a "bloody conflict" against the Chinese in order to secure his country’s sovereignty.
If the Philippines were to engage in an armed conflict against China then the United States would immediately be drawn into the conflict pursuant to the mutual defense treaty signed by the two countries nearly six decades ago considerably raising the stakes over what is actually nothing more than a few rocks that are sticking up out of the Pacific Ocean waters.
Lorenzana expressed his grave concern over the buildup of Chinese ships, but also urged caution.
"We don’t know yet if those barges are precursors of future dredging operations," he said. "If they try to construct anything in Scarborough it will have a far-reaching adverse effect on the security situation."
The US State Department said on Sunday that the United States continues to monitor the escalating situation in the South China Sea and encouraged "all sides to exercise restraint and take practical steps to lower tensions."