The China-Philippines relations appears to be tense and it seems that things are not going well in the region. The Philippines and China have an ongoing conflict over the South China Sea, a long standing issue that continuous to create problems in the region. There have been multiple alarming and dangerous developments in the South China Sea (SCS) dispute since the beginning of this year. Reportedly, there was a recent incident in which a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel came within 1 meter of colliding with the Philippines Coast Guard (PCG) vessel near Second Thomas Shoal (known as Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines and Ren’ai Jiao in China). As Manila was conducting a resupply mission to a deliberately grounded rusty World War-II era warship BRP Sierra Madre. It is widely believed that the Philippines side uses it as an outpost of the Philippines Marines Corps to assert sovereignty in the disputed territory. The major concern is that the regular confrontations between these two regional powers have become a routine practice. The worry is that this pattern may ultimately lead to increased tensions or a more significant incident. Additionally, both states maintain uncompromising positions on the matter. The Philippines side under Marcos Jr. refused to relocate the grounded ship and China continuously exerting pressure for its removal. The Chinese side repeatedly highlighted and emphasized that it has irrefutable sovereignty over the area.
The competing claims and escalating tensions between China and the Philippines have drawn the attention of the US. Each Chinese action that appears aggressive provides the US a chance to position itself as a guardian against Chinese coercion and intimidation in the region. The US has consistently criticized Chinese actions and reaffirmed its commitment to protecting a free and open Asia-Pacific region, promoting international law, and upholding a rules-based order. Simultaneously, this volatile situation in the region has provided a rare opportunity for the US to further strengthen its ties with the Philippines while also encouraging its allies such as Japan and India to enhance their relationships with the Philippines. The objective or purpose is to present a united front in response to China. The interesting part is that these Quad states have different strategic imperatives for increasing their engagement with the Philippines, but they are all motivated by concerns about China’s actions, which they depict as assertive and aggressive. However, there is also the concern that this united effort by the Quad states and their engagement with the Philippines might provoke China. China has often accused the US of stoking tensions and sowing discord among regional countries for their own vested interests.
The Biden administration recognized that the Philippines were under pressure from China regarding the SCS issue. In response, the US has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty. Moreover, the US expressed its support for the Philippines defense modernization efforts and has been actively expanding operational cooperation in the maritime domain, notably in the SCS. On the other hand, it appears that the Marcos administration has inched closer to the US. The Philippines side invited the US to increase its military footprint in the country. A move aimed at signaling to the regional power – China. This year, the Philippines granted the US access to four strategically located bases. Three of these bases are on Luzon, the main island, with proximity to Taiwan and the fourth is on Balabac Island, strategically positioned facing the SCS. This move has solidified defense ties and grants the US unprecedented access to critical Philippines military facilities. It allowed the US to potentially influence matters concerning Taiwan and intervene in the contested waters of SCS. This development is viewed as a win-win situation for both the US and the Philippines. However, there are opposing voices suggesting that this development has unnecessarily put the Philippines in between two great powers who are at odd with each other. The fear is that any conflict between these powers could have long-term negative consequences for the Philippines.
Another important approach visible in the region is that the US is actively encouraging the engagement of its allies. In that context, Japan and the Philippines are deepening their defense ties. Both nations decided to enhance the defense capabilities of their countries and strengthen overall security cooperation, which includes aircraft visits, reciprocal port calls, and the transfer of more defense equipment and technology. Additionally, there are media reports suggesting that Japan and the Philippines are working towards a new Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), indicating a deepening commitment to security collaboration. These discussions are important because they are part of a broader emerging trilateral alliance known as JAPHUS. This alliance could be central to the success of US China strategy.
Apart from Japan, India is also deepening its relationship with the Philippines. We can see a noteworthy shift in India’s approach. Under the Modi’s leadership, New-Delhi for the first time has officially expressed support for the 2016 Tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines. This is an important development particularly in light of the ongoing conflict between India and China over the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Moreover, it underscores India’s aspirations to take on a larger and more proactive role as a credible security partner in Southeast Asia. It also aligns with the broader global narrative of democratic states taking a stance against actions that challenge established norms and rules. When they express that it is evident that they are primarily referring to China.
Along with that, the Philippines side was the first foreign nation to acquire the Indian-Russian BrahMos supersonic anti-ship missile. The purpose behind this was to safeguard its sovereign claims in the SCS, strengthen the country’s military capabilities, anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD), and coastal & island defense operations. The sale of BrahMos missiles by India to the Philippines was a significant development, as it is evident that the action is directed against China.
The developments mentioned above, along with the involvement of multiple regional and extra-regional powers with different agendas have complicated the geopolitical dynamics in the region. Any minor or major escalation could potentially lead to heightened hostility with unimaginable consequences for the entire Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, it is quite evident that China is displeased with the US and its allies approach in the region. It has accused the US and its allies of exaggerating the “China threat theory” and views their actions as detrimental to its long-term interests. China has repeatedly signaled its unease and cautioned the US many times using a Chinese saying that “Those who play with fire will perish by it”. This is a matter that deserves the US and its ally’s thoughtful deliberation. They should examine the situation with caution to avoid inadvertently provoking China. It is essential for all parties to work for regional stability and to seek practical & effective solutions.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.