Even as the world’s attention is focused on the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, tensions continue to rise in Southeast Asia between the Philippines and China. Recent incidents at sea between the two have been the worst in more than a decade.
The United States, through its active presence in the region and treaty alliance with the Philippines, is intimately tied to this worsening row. Unless handled carefully, the situation could lead to a full-blown crisis or even conflict that none of the parties wants. While the Philippines is exercising agency in its responses to Chinese behavior, the United States retains high levels of bargaining power with its ally. There is a strong case to be made for Washington to exercise restraint and avoid worsening the situation, while aiding the Philippines in measured ways in its defense against intrusive Chinese activities.
When Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. was elected as president of the Philippines in 2022, some Filipinos feared that his foreign policy would continue the tilt toward China that was seen under his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. This expectation was partly because Marcos had picked Sara Duterte, the former president’s daughter, as his running mate.
However, as 2023 progressed it became clear that the Philippines was undertaking a major shift in its orientation, placing its bets heavily on its alliance with the United States. The two allies announced four additional military sites that the U.S. would have access to under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Three of these sites are in northern Luzon, closer to Taiwan. This year’s Balikatan exercises were also the largest ever, with maneuvers that included the defense of the Batanes islands, which are located even closer to Taiwan than northern Luzon is. Earlier this year I wrote about the risks of fusing the Taiwan and South China Sea theaters and planning joint patrols.
China’s sweeping “nine-dash line” claim line in the South China Sea (recently upgraded to a “ten-dash line”) has its roots in the Republic of China era or even earlier. Beijing’s claims, which are the same as those of Taiwan, are based in so-called historic rights. However, the landmark 2016 Philippines v. China verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled the nine-dash line as illegal. The ruling was clear that the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) superseded any “historic rights,” except in the case of limited artisanal fishing in territorial seas.
In recent incidents, China has tried to prevent the resupply of a small contingent of Filipino troops perched precariously on a derelict but still commissioned naval vessel Manila deliberately grounded in 1999 on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands. Beijing’s grayzone tactics have included swarming, water-cannoning, lasering, and collisions. Incidents have also occurred off Thitu Island and near Scarborough Shoal (located in a separate area of the South China Sea closer to Luzon). China has also reportedly caused major environmental damage in the sea.
The 2016 PCA ruling was clear that Second Thomas Shoal lies wholly within the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. The 2016 judgment took no position on the territorial ownership of Scarborough Shoal itself, except that the feature lies within the Philippines EEZ but is entitled to its own territorial sea of within 12 nautical miles.
While Duterte’s predecessor, President Benigno Aquino, used international law as his principal tool to push back against China, Marcos has employed more direct methods. There is much greater reliance on the United States through an enhanced American troop presence in expanded EDCA sites, ramped-up exercises, and newly launched joint patrols. Marcos is also employing radical transparency – publicizing each incident and facilitating media access. This has been effective in widely disseminating the Philippines’ argument that China is entirely to blame for the recent tensions (though Beijing disputes this). Manila is also reportedly doubling down on the legal route and considering filing a new case against China.
Within the Philippines, there is a sense of victimization by China going back decades. The perception of maritime threats is ever-present. Beijing’s seizure of Mischief Reef in 1994-95 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012 has not been forgotten. Manila is determined to prevent a repeat in Second Thomas Shoal and other features it controls.
However, Marcos may be overcompensating for previous failures. Operations to defend and strengthen Philippines’ tenuous footprint on Second Thomas Shoal and other Spratly features such as Thitu Island are geared toward maintaining a fragile status quo. It would be wise and proper for China to stop seeing them as threats. But missions to the Scarborough Shoal area (which have also included the presence of the Philippines military chief himself) have elements of challenging the status quo, as the shoal is controlled by China. The Scarborough Shoal forays also arguably run up against Article 5 of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed by ASEAN and China, which requires all signatories to exercise “self-restraint” (though, of course, China has been a major violator of this principle in the region).
Thus, the Philippines seems to have decided that Chinese gray zone tactics need to be met with some gray zoning of its own. It is hard to blame this sentiment, and Manila certainly has international law on its side in the current areas of contestation. But in a dangerous flashpoint such as the South China Sea, any moves undertaken, especially by the weaker party, should not only meet the standard of legality, but also of strategic wisdom.
The same logic applies to the United States. Washington’s interests in the South China Sea are not the same as those of the Philippines. For the United States, a direct conflict with China over tiny islets in a distant sea makes no sense.
Tightening the alliance with the Philippines with an added Taiwan dimension, launching joint patrols, conducting its first Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) near the Second Thomas Shoal hotspot, and deepening jointness with other U.S. allies has not achieved the objective of deterring China in the South China Sea. If anything, Chinese behavior seems to have become more assertive. Doing more of the same and expecting different results will likely lead to disappointment – and risks conflict.
There is also the question of the moral hazard of excessively emboldening an ally, as seems to be happening with the Philippines. Manila is more dependent on Washington than the other way around and is now also highly committed to the alliance since Marcos’ U-turn. Both factors increase U.S. bargaining power over the Philippines. Washington could use this leverage wisely to nudge its more vulnerable partner to be more restrained in some of its actions.
But Washington also needs to also exercise strategic restraint in its own actions. The tightening military embrace of Manila through expansion of EDCA sites, FONOPs near Second Thomas Shoal, and the involvement of U.S. allies such as Australia and Japan in the theater only enhance Chinese fears of bloc formation and armed encirclement. These concerns are not unfounded, considering that Washington – through moves such as AUKUS, the Quad states’ military activities, and the Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral – seems to be doing all it can to create an Asian security front to counter China’s rise.
Ultimately, China, the Philippines, and the United States will have to step back and consider the situation from a holistic crisis management perspective, incorporating reassurance, conflict-avoidance, and civilian-led processes. This is particularly necessary now that joint Philippines-U.S. military patrols could easily short-circuit what would otherwise be a local incident into a direct great power clash. Marcos’ latest statement recognizing the need for a “paradigm shift” in managing China relations may be a first step, to which China might wish to respond.
The Philippines has said that Chinese actions are not an “act of war [but] a cat and mouse game.” Unfortunately, it could take just a couple of escalatory steps on both sides to convert the “game” into a full-blown crisis in the South China Sea.