Tensions are rising between China and the Philippines in connection with a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. The dispute may create a sense of anxiety in Southeast Asia while pushing the Philippines to increase security cooperation with the United States, analysts say.
“What China did was place the Philippines in a position from which it cannot de-escalate without risking international humiliation, so the Philippines is acting right now in ways that are designed to project strength,” Justin Baquisal, a Manila-based geopolitical analyst, told VOA in a phone interview.
The latest dispute happened after the Philippine military accused Chinese coast guard ships of interfering with its supply vessels and spraying Philippine ships with water cannon.
Manila characterized the moves as “excessive and offensive” while Beijing insisted that it had exercised “rational restraint.”
At the center of the dispute is a World War II-era warship, the Sierra Madre, that the Philippines intentionally grounded at the Second Thomas Shoal as a military outpost to safeguard its territorial claim. The disputed reef is located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and Manila regularly rotates troops through the post.
While Beijing has repeatedly urged Manila to withdraw the ship, the Philippines has vowed to resist if China tries to remove the Sierra Madre forcefully.
Experts say China has adopted a strategy of blockade to control the materials that reach the Second Thomas Shoal, which increases the likelihood that China can simply outlast the Philippines in the contest for control over the disputed reef.
“The Second Thomas Shoal is sparsely manned, and the platform that the [makeshift military outpost] is built upon is falling apart,” Ray Powell, Project Myoushu (South China Sea) lead at Stanford University, told VOA.
With the Sierra Madre in a deteriorated condition, Powell warns that a Chinese takeover of the Second Thomas Shoal will be inevitable unless Manila adopts a different strategy to maintain control over the disputed reef. “This ship can’t last forever, and the platform on which the outpost is built upon will eventually go away,” he said.
On Aug. 11, the Philippine military said it was looking at different options to strengthen its control over the Second Thomas Shoal. "All courses of actions to prolong our stay there are being considered. ... One of them is refurbishment," said Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, chief of the Philippine Western Command, during a news conference last week.
Carlos added that Manila’s current priority is to resume rotation and a resupply mission for troops at the shoal, which may happen over the next two weeks.
Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged Manila to work with Beijing to reduce tensions in the South China Sea. “China has repeatedly expressed its willingness to resolve differences with the Philippines through bilateral dialogues,” said Wang in a statement released by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
Unexpected response from the Philippines
To safeguard its maritime interests and push back against China’s pressure campaign, Manila announced a series of possible countermeasures last week, including holding joint maritime patrols with the United States by the end of 2023 and providing additional fleets of vessels to escort resupply missions.
“If the Armed Forces of the Philippines would request the Philippine Coast Guard to provide escort, we will deploy vessels that will support the supply mission,” said Jay Tarriela, the Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea, during a news conference on Aug. 12.
Analysts said the measures are part of Manila’s effort to defend its sovereignty and the responses may have been unexpected by Beijing.
“For 20 years, China has been able to change the status quo in the South China Sea in meaningful ways without facing an organized resistance,” Blake Herzinger, a research fellow at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney, told VOA in a phone interview.
To ensure good order at sea and enforce their sovereignty, Herzinger said, the Philippines needs to show that it is willing to go toe-to-toe with the Chinese coast guard and maritime militia. “That will be a place where the Philippines will try to lean on the U.S. alliance for support,” he said.
South China Sea claimants closely monitor the development
While the latest territorial dispute is between China and the Philippines, observers say other countries that have made territorial claims in the South China Sea will closely monitor how Beijing handles the tension with Manila.
“States like Malaysia and Vietnam also have vessels that need resupply in parts of the South China Sea, so the standoff at Ayungin Shoal creates a precedent for them and fosters insecurity,” geopolitical analyst Baquisal told VOA, using another name for the Second Thomas Shoal.
Apart from that, Beijing’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea may reduce the chances of ASEAN member states and China reaching a consensus on a long-sought code of conduct for the South China Sea.
“The water cannon incident makes the final resolution of the code of conduct even less likely than it was before,” said Powell from Stanford University.
Baquisal said China’s response to future resupply missions by the Philippines may determine how bilateral relations develop. China’s reaction to the last resupply mission, he said, “has weakened its already-low credibility in the Philippines and has even provided impetus in the Philippines justifying the need for U.S. forces in the country."
Despite public support for the U.S., Baquisal noted that the Marcos administration continues to take a calibrated approach toward Beijing as it tries to avoid making military disputes the totality of bilateral relations.