Tensions in the South China Sea are on one of their periodic upswings. Chinese and Vietnamese ships collided after China parked an oil rig in the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam. Vietnam says Chinese ships used water cannons to repel Vietnamese vessels in the area, damaging two ships and injuring six people. China, meanwhile, says Vietnamese vessels rammed Chinese ships 171 times.
The dispute goes back to May 1 when China moved an oil rig to the area. China claims nearly the entire South China Sea as its territory, putting it in conflict with countries including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
The last of those countries has also seen renewed tension with China in the last week. On Wednesday the Philippines arrested the crew of a Chinese fishing vessel in the disputed Spratly Islands, finding about 500 turtles on board. Poaching endangered sea turtles is a serious crime in the Philippines, with sentences up to 12 years in prison. Beijing has protested the arrest and demanded that the Philippines release the crew. For now, the Philippines is ignoring China’s complaints.
These crises seem likely to blow over, but they’re a reminder that in a region where the greatest risk is miscalculation or irresponsible action by one of the sides, a wider conflict could easily be sparked not by a traditional military showdown but by far more routine activities.