Could U.S. Get Sucked Into War?
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Could U.S. Get Sucked Into War?


The standoff between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea has evolved over the last five weeks into a bizarre brinkmanship triangle. The United States finds itself reluctantly backed into corner number three: this is definitely not the pivot to Asia that Washington had in mind.

The beauty of brinkmanship, of course, is that actually going over the brink is seldom required. Most likely it won’t be necessary in this situation either. Despite some tough talk from both Beijing and Manila, the hope now is that the two-and-a-half-month fishing moratorium due to be imposed by China on May 16, imposed annually since 1999, will finally help to douse a few tempers, and bring the confrontation to a peaceful conclusion.

The U.S. government must be praying for such an outcome. If the Chinese and Philippine crews glowering at one another over the contested Scarborough Shoal actually start shooting, the ensuing conflict is likely to pan out in one of two directions:

Scenario A: China’s superior navy initially makes short work of the Philippine opposition, but Manila then invokes its Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. Honoring its treaty obligations, the U.S. dispatches a carrier battle group to the South China Sea and reclaims the contested Scarborough Shoal on behalf of its Philippine allies.

Scenario B: As China swiftly takes Scarborough Shoal by force, Manila invokes its Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. But Washington doesn’t pick up the phone, maintaining sheepishly at subsequent press conferences that these “obscure” maritime territories fall outside the MDT’s confines.

Either policy option is miserable from the U.S. perspective. War with China is obviously something to avoid at all costs. But at the same time the abandonment of the Philippines would torpedo the strategic rebalance to Asia before it has even got underway: Washington’s allies in the Pacific would conclude that the United States is no longer dependable as a hedge against China (which is the reason most East Asian countries want to have the U.S. around).

The Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the United States is a sixty-year-old anachronism – a throwback to the Cold War days when countries existed in a pre-globalized environment and the benefits of picking sides vastly outweighed the costs.

But the interlinked economies of the 21st century means there’s no longer a “them and us”: there’s only an “us” (North Korea aside). This is the age of the Free Trade Agreements and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, not the mutual defense pact. So while it’s understandable that Philippine government ministers should want to remind both China and the U.S. of the Mutual Defense Treaty’s existence – because in a confrontation with China it’s the only card they can play – they are no doubt conscious that the feeling in Washington is very far from mutual.

In fact, U.S. support for the Philippines is very much qualified. Brinkmanship is fine: the prospect, however remote, of American intervention could be enough to deter Chinese military action. But go over the brink, Presidente, and you’re on your own.

The U.S. has promised Manila that it will honor its treaty obligations, while effectively assuring China that it will stay out of the dispute. In the event of an armed conflict, these positions become totally incompatible. It would be a horrible dilemma for the Obama administration.

However, China’s calculus is itself anything but straightforward. Chinese naval forces could easily take the contested reefs and probably suffer no American reprisals: but what then? In much of East Asia, China would be portrayed as the villain that opted to whack its weaker neighbor rather than accept a reasonable offer of international arbitration. Countries like Japan, dismayed at American absenteeism, might start to militarize unilaterally, finally convinced that China’s rise is something to resist. And there are further layers of complexity. Military action against the Philippines might just provoke a U.S. response – and bring down on China exactly the kind of humiliation that assertiveness in the South China Sea is meant to banish from history. Equally, the failure to act militarily would only infuriate the army of Chinese netizens who have already declared war on the Philippines a thousand times on Sina Weibo.

This is potentially a critical juncture for both Chinese and U.S. interests in the Pacific region. The Philippines, by far the weakest player in the game of trilateral brinkmanship, arguably has the least to lose.

February 13, 2013 at 11:10

Let them fend for themselves. We gave them their country once and all they do is use their women to scan Americans..

September 4, 2012 at 12:05

vec keep on dreaming that youre df21 bs can bring down american carriers cause you dont have any idea or you dont know the full capabilities of u.s. carriers the only one that can destroy youre df21 is youre a** many nation dont like your nation china 

August 12, 2012 at 00:06

yeah right…. what world are you living in… as the USA attacked Iraq without UN approval… because it might have WMDs and might use them…USA and western powers took a UN no fly zone mandate in Libya and turned it into search and destroy ground units and try and assasinate Gaddaffi…
time for war is now for China…
if Filipinos are this beligerant now when it has no credible Navy imagine how beligerant you will become when you can actually fight your wars yourself…

Major Lowen Gil Marquez, Phil Army
August 9, 2012 at 02:49

The Bilateral agreement will served a mutual understandng of defence to both the participating country towards common intruding enemy on scarborough shoal at the western philippine sea.. Philippines militarily week but it will deter any enemy how strong they were to invade our country and sovereigty.. It does not matter if a nation is week or strong as long they were fighting for their freedom against the chinese communist then the whole free world will gather to the side of the oppress country like the philippines which is bullied by the chinese communist…

Niko_Call Center Agent from the Philippines
May 31, 2012 at 12:20

I really hope that this problem gets resolved ASAP. I am Filipino and I dont hate the Chinese people. Im 23 years old and all my life here in the Philippines i see Chinese everywhere. We do business with them almost everyday. Let us all respect each others opinion. For me, the standoff between PRC and my country must be brought to international court. The world knows that China is military and economically more powerful than the Philippines hence bilateral meetings with PRC will give them the upper hand. We may not be able to deal with this economically and militarily with PRC but we will stand on our feet. International court would give us a fair ground. Filipinos are peace loving in general (at least this is what I think). We have never invaded any country. We are known to be hospitable and friendly.

May 21, 2012 at 23:25

I understand nations have conflict, but I don’t understand how a naval ship can open fire on a group of people as a self-dense act. See it for yourself.

Retarded Chinese
May 18, 2012 at 19:10

So far I we haven’t seen any concrete documentation to support China’s claim of Scarborough shoal-lets see that 1279 mongol map or that Han whatever dynasty that was map…this is one of the most ridiculous claims since hitler claim danzig from poland.

Austronesian Guy
May 18, 2012 at 18:50

sorry for the typo/grammar errors. I type fast :)

Austronesian Guy
May 18, 2012 at 18:48


The Philippines has every right to claim the Spratly’s and the Scarborough Shoal based on:

6. EFFECTIVE SOVEREIGNTY – 1. Austronesians/ Malay, 2. Sultanate of Sulu, 3. Spanish Old maps, 4. US map, 5. up to this day, the Philippine Navy and Coast guards patrols those contested Islands. The Filipinos erected a flag in the Scarborough shoal and in the Sparatlys. The Phil Navy and Coast guard patrols the Scarborough Shoals and Philippine ships are still there as I write. There is Municipality in the Spratlys that is called KALAYAAN with buildings, houses, a school and other structures with Military personnel guarding them. All these shows effective sovereignty.

Austronesian Guy
May 18, 2012 at 18:39

Austronesians/ Malay ruled the Pacific (even some parts of Indian Ocean) from Taiwan (Motherland) to Madagascar to Hawaii. Modern day maps can even attest to their sphere of influence up to this day as these countries inside Austronesia are STILL Austronesian Speakers (not CHINESE). The Scarbourough shoal and the Spratly’s are very close to MAJOR Austronesian Islands of Luzon and Palawan. You are stupid enough if you say the Austronesians never controlled those Island groups while they control farther territories like New Zealand and the Marianas. What I’m pointing out is the Chinese will never justify sovereignty because the south china sea island groups especially the spratlys and the scarborough shoal were governed by Austronesians per HISTORY (heres a map of Austronesia The Hans were late Navigators and were just visitors/ traders of the south china sea island ONLY.

Filipinos were already using the island even before Spain invaded the country. Spanish officials even drew an AUTHENTIC map that includes those Island groups (heres the map

The Treaty of Paris even include those Islands and I know most Chinese Netizens would argue but the Philippines has a secret map from the US that will slap CHINA in th ICJ. Look for this texts “According to Del Rosario, a map prepared by the US Armed Forces in 1903 was given to him during his last visit to Washington.The map included Panatag Shoal as part of the island groups of the Philippines, contrary to China’s claim that it is not included in the Philippine boundaries under the Treaty of Paris.” Here’s the link

The Philippines has every right to claim the Spratly’s and the Scarborough Shoal based on:

1. History – Austronesian History, Sultanate of Sulu Jurisdiction, Spanish Old Maps and the Treaty of Paris

2. UNCLOS (200 nautical mile EEZ), Continental Shelf

3. Archipelagic Doctrine – The Spartlys and the Scarborough shoal are part of the Philippine Archipelago (Mainland China is not an Archipelago)

4. Res Nullius – The Philippines claimed the Island first when Japan surrendered. The Japanese did not designate the Islands to a specific country.

5. Common Sense – Ask a 5 year old kid to look at the map.

That is why CHINA is scared to take the issue to the INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE.

The Philippines might not win the fight militarily, but will win the fight by ACCEPTED INTERNATIONAL LAW.


May 18, 2012 at 14:13

It’s sickening watching China play Angel while pointing her flaming trident to petty little neighbors. First, answer this Yes or No: Does the said shoal fall inside the Philippines’ EEZ? Is it justifiable for any country to claim a territory based on History (God this will tear Europe to bits)? Is it right for China to stop tours to the Philippines just because of the dispute?

I don’t want any of you doubting the sincerity of the Philippines. White-to-white, gray-to-gray. That’s why the government of Manila immediately replaced the frigate that caught China with coast guard and fisheries ship. And while China threatens the use of force, the Philippines have been calmly calling for the case to be brought to international bodies.

Which also reminds me of the irritating Chinese Propaganda saying that their fishermen have been harassed. They were caught fishing endangered species WELL WITHIN PHILIPPINE WATERS and got away with it. If there’s anyone harassed, it is the sovereignty of the Philippines.


May 18, 2012 at 10:47

You see? Just listen to the silence and we can tell on which side is righteousness.

Stephen D
May 18, 2012 at 06:31

China and the US have been engaged in a low grade almost bloodless war for two decades. This is an economis and Cyber war. The Cyber war is heating up. The economic war is also. Both China and the US are desperately interested in three things: 1. Winning 2. Keeping it bloodless 3. Keeping this off the radar of the less then politically hyper aware.

This one incident reminds one of the spark for WW1. Archduke Ferdinands echo may respeak in Tagolog (main dialect of the Phillipines.)

May 17, 2012 at 16:43

@John Chan,
I don’t think you did not catch my point, but in case of doubt, allow me to re-phrase it in a short sentence: If China does not believe that The Philippines is a qualified member of the United Nations, then it is immoral from China to insist on bilateral negotiations with The Philippines, on sovereignty issues.

May 17, 2012 at 15:54

@Lil: I call it bias with “chinese characteristic” :).

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