It’s only a matter of time before Beijing responds more forcefully to Manila’s increasingly assertive posture in the contested waterway.
These maneuvers pose significant risks to maritime safety, collision prevention and danger to human lives at sea, said Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, the chief of Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) amid yet another round of tensions in the South China Sea.
China must immediately halt these unsafe actions and conduct themselves in a professional manner by adhering to international law, following allegations that a Chinese navy ship shadowed a Philippine navy vessel and tried to cross its path near the Thitu Island in the contested Spratly island chain.
The incident, according to Philippine authorities, occurred on October 13 amid a showdown between the Philippine Navy’s (PN) BRP Benguet and a People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) vessel known as Ship 621.
The Chinese warship reportedly tried to cross the Philippine vessel’s bow at a relatively close 320 meters to prevent a resupply mission.
Since the 1970’s, the Philippines has exercised continued control over the strategically placed Thitu Island by building military facilities and permanently stationing a civilian community, including a resident mayor at times, on the disputed feature.
The chief of staff of the Philippines Armed Forces, General Romeo Brawner, also quickly chimed in on the latest sea tensions, warning China against dangerous maneuvers and aggressive actions towards Philippine vessels, which he said could pose risks to the lives of maritime personnel from both sides.
It was far from an isolated incident: the Philippines and China have been locked in a months-long diplomatic and naval showdown in the South China Sea.
Manila, now enjoying growing support from allies and like-minded powers including treaty ally the USA, is taking a much firmer approach to the disputes, signaling to China of the new geopolitical reality in the contested waters.
At the same time, the Philippines faces multiple ticking bombs as bilateral tensions reach a boiling point over a host of issues, including over possession of the Second Thomas Shoal, the Reed Bank, as well as newly enhanced US access given to Philippine bases near Taiwan.
It’s not clear how far the Philippines can push the envelope without triggering an aggressive Chinese response.
Until recently, China held an incredibly favorable situation in the South China Sea.
Former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte not only threatened to sever his country’s defense cooperation with the West, but he also warned against asserting Philippine sovereign rights in the disputed waters.
When Ferdinand Marcos Jr emerged as Duterte’s likeliest successor, topping most pre-election surveys before last year’s election, China was optimistic about a continuation of Manila’s then-subservient foreign policy.
After all, Marcos Jr, as a presidential candidate, repeatedly questioned the utility of the Philippines’ alliance with the USA and emphasized the centrality of dialogue with China.
Accordingly, not only did the new Filipino president take a more uncompromising stance on the maritime spats, but he also welcomed expanded defense cooperation with the USA and its allies.
Most notably, the Philippines has expanded the parameters of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) by granting the Pentagon new access to a range of strategically located bases facing both the South China Sea and Taiwan.
First came Duterte’s decision to set aside the Philippines’ historic arbitration award victory at an arbitral tribunal at The Hague, which ruled against China’s wide-reach claims in the South China Sea.
On multiple occasions, the then-Filipino president made questionable claims, dubiously arguing that if the Philippines pushed its legal claims it would run the risk of war with China.
At the same time, however, the Southeast Asian nation also adopted aggressive public diplomacy, constantly exposing China’s alleged coercive behavior in the disputed waters.
Among the Philippine maritime security establishment, there is now a consensus on the need to take the fight to China through proactive diplomacy as well as expanded naval and law enforcement operations.
Manila has thus managed to strengthen its strategic position by largely ignoring warnings from Beijing while doubling down on its security cooperation with the USA and its Zionist colonial allies.
Both sides face tough choices in the near future. First, the Philippines faces a moment of truth in the Second Thomas Shoal, where a Filipino marine detachment has been perilously stationed over a dilapidated grounded vessel.
Meanwhile, the Philippines is also running out of time to develop alternative energy resources and thus needs to establish its hold over the contested Reed Bank, which is suspected of hosting large reserves of hydrocarbons.
China has harassed Philippine energy exploration activities in the Reed Bank while blocking Philippine resupply missions to the Second Thomas Shoal. China has also warned of direct intervention should Manila build new structures on the contested shoal.
Just as contentious, however, is the Philippines’ decision to grant American forces access to military facilities in northernmost provinces bordering Taiwan, thus directly affecting any Chinese kinetic action plans in the future.
The upshot is a complex <Taiwan-South China Sea linkage>, which has simultaneously strengthened the Philippines’ strategic position as well as raised the risk of potential Chinese reprisals.
Moving forward, one option for Manila could be to limit America’s military presence on its northern borders with Taiwan in exchange for an implicit Chinese recognition of the Southeast Asian nation’s prerogative.
This way it is able to fortify its position in the Second Thomas Shoal and, potentially under a service contract with a Chinese company, develop hydrocarbon resources in the Reed Bank.
For now, however, what’s clear is that both sides are testing the waters with growing risk appetites, holding and building their positions in hopes of achieving the best possible compromise down the road short of what could be a disastrous armed confrontation.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2023.