Philippines Expecting Further Chinese Escalation in South China Sea, Official Says

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Philippines Expecting Further Chinese Escalation in South China Sea, Official Says

After a tumultuous 2023, the Philippines is set for another year of confrontation in contested waters.

Philippines Expecting Further Chinese Escalation in South China Sea, Official Says

In this photo issued by the Philippine Coast Guard, China Coast Guard vessels fire water cannons at Philippine fisheries bureau ships in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, December 9, 2023.

Credit: X/Jay Tarriela

The Philippines is anticipating an escalation of hostilities by Chinese vessels in the South China Sea, following two dangerous incidents in contested parts of the waterway earlier this week.

In an interview with CNN Philippines that was aired late on Wednesday, Alberto Carlos, chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Palawan-based Western Command, said that the military was expecting “more coercive actions from China, short of armed attack.”

Carlos’ comments come after a pair of dangerous incidents over the weekend. One saw Chinese vessels collide with and shoot water cannons at Philippine vessels seeking to resupply troops stationed at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands. The other saw China fire water cannons at three fisheries bureau vessels that were sending oil and groceries to fishermen near Scarborough Shoal, in a different part of the South China Sea. Both lie well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

“It’s already escalating… we expect more coercive action from China,” Carlos told CNN. “After water cannon, we expect ramming, we expect them to attempt to board our vessel, which is something that we will not allow them to do.”

Carlos said that China would limit its actions to those that “short of armed attacks,” to avoid triggering a U.S. response under the Mutual Defense Treaty, which obliges Washington and Manila to come to one another’s aid in the event of an attack on either. He added that the AFP had conducted war games and other exercises assessing how China might escalate its “gray zone” campaign against the Philippine-held features.

“We’re brainstorming this, we are wargaming this and we are prepared for any contingency that will happen,” said Carlos.

The weekend’s incidents, which left one Philippine supply ship disabled and damaged the mast of a Philippine Coast Guard vessel, cap off a year that has seen a sharp increase in the frequency and intensity of China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea. Many of them, including the laser incident referenced by Carlos above, have involved attempts to prevent the Philippines from resupplying Second Thomas Shoal, where a small contingent of Philippine troops is stationed aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded warship.

This is likely due to a Chinese assessment that the decrepit World War II-era vessel, battered by corrosive sea winds and ocean spray, will soon collapse into the ocean, giving China an opportunity to occupy the feature. As Ray Powell, the director of the SeaLight project at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, told Newsweek last month, China “seeks to outlast the Philippines at Second Thomas Shoal until either the ship breaks up or otherwise becomes uninhabitable, or until Manila grows weary of running the blockade.” As it happens, the AFP’s Western Command announced that five Chinese militia vessels were spotted at Second Thomas Shoal yesterday, along with another four in the vicinity.

Taken together, this concatenation of incidents and confrontations could be pushing Philippine attitudes toward something of a tipping-point. On Tuesday, the Philippines summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest the “back-to-back harassments,” with the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs stating that “the actions of the Chinese vessels within the Philippine exclusive economic zone are illegal and violate the freedom of navigation.” President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. also stated that that the actions “have only further steeled our determination to defend and protect our nation’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea.” The Chinese actions were also denounced by Western nations including the U.S., Australia, and Canada.

As it stands, without Chinese efforts to defuse the situation, 2024 is shaping up to be another year of escalating confrontation in the South China Sea – one that raises the risk that a misstep by either side could set off a wider conflict. Yesterday, Philippine lawmakers allocated 100 million pesos ($1.79 million) in funds for the building of a permanent structure on Second Thomas Shoal under the 2024 national budget. China has previously declared its staunch opposition to the construction of any permanent shelter on the shoal.