Recently, China has been accused of using a water cannon on a Philippine boat in the South China Sea (SCS). A concerning incident that has reverberated across global media outlets. Armed Forces Chief Gen. Romeo Brawner said “An attack – even with water cannon – on a navy ship would be tantamount to “aggressive actions against a military ship and that could be interpreted as an act of war already.” The confrontation marks the most recent escalation in the ongoing territorial dispute between China and the Philippines adding another layer of complexity to their longstanding conflict. In response, Manila summoned China’s ambassador Huang Xilian and presented a strongly worded diplomatic protest over the tense hours-long standoff near Second Thomas Shoal. A submerged reef where Philippines troops live on a rusty World War-II era warship BRP Sierra Madre.
It is widely believed that the Philippine’s side deliberately or intentionally grounded the BRP Sierra Madre in the Spratly Islands in 1999 to serve as an outpost of the Philippines Marines Corps to assert sovereignty in the disputed territory.
Moreover, the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in a statement, urged the Philippines to immediately “remove” the warship (BRP Sierra Madre) and restore it to its unoccupied state. It is unsurprising that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and National Security Council (NSC) Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya both, in a separate statement, firmly stated that they won’t abandon BRP Sierra Madre. It is noteworthy that BRP Sierra Madre is necessary for the Philippines to protect its interests in the West Philippines Sea. It is worth mentioning that the South China Sea is critical for military, economic, and strategic purposes and is rich in resources like gas and oil. The competing claims between Manila, Beijing, and other regional states over this territory and waters of the South China Sea make it one of the world’s most controversial and contested regions. The Philippines continues to struggle with China’s continuous efforts to assert its irrefutable sovereignty over SCS. Moreover, due to its strategic location, this region is significant for regional and global powers, including China, the US, and Japan. It is also the hub of economic maritime passage from the west to the East.
The ongoing maritime dispute between China and the Philippines is increasingly linked to geopolitical competition between China and the US. It is worth highlighting that specific Chinese actions have afforded the US a strategic opening in the Asia-Pacific region. It is alleged that China’s assertive behavior in the SCS and increased military presence near the Island of Taiwan allowed the US to play a significant security leadership role. Numerous regional countries contesting over the SCS intended to become US allies to ward off the overwhelming Chinese influence in the region. They opted for a dynamic equilibrium to discourage both coercion and conflict.
The US’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific region to keep a close eye on the maritime status, navigational freedom, and its commitment to regional countries infuriated China.
Simultaneously, it is progressively evident that China is not content with maintaining the current status quo of the US within the regional balance of power. Former Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte pursued a pragmatic approach, avoiding confrontation with China in the hope of reaping economic benefits. Throughout his presidency, he minimized territorial sovereignty in the SCS and sought economic gains from China. He downplayed a 2016 arbitration victory that rejected China’s extensive sovereignty claims in the sea. The purpose was to prevent the maritime dispute from damaging its bilateral relationship with the region’s dominant military and economic power. President Marcos Jr assumed the presidency in June 2022 and emphasized an independent foreign policy prioritizing the Philippines’ national interests.
This foreign policy rejects the “Cold War mentality” that forces more minor powers to pick sides between more considerable competing powers. Initially, he adhered to this policy but shifted towards closer ties with the US. Due to the pressure from the US, he attempted to amplify the arbitration case initiated by Aquino III. He also approved the establishment of 4 additional US military bases, bringing the total count to 9. These actions led to the perception that the Philippines aligned itself with the US under President Marcos. Other pivotal developments reinforcing this perception include the US granting the Philippines the status of Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA). Manila now joins the selected group of 19 MNNAs. On average, the US offers around $120 million annually in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to the Philippines, with this year’s support exceeding $200 million. Additionally, the largest-ever military exercise, “Balikatan,” conducted from 11-28 April 2023 between the two countries, involved more than 17,600 soldiers as a solid commitment to external defense contributed to solidifying this perception.
All developments mentioned above revealed that under the Biden administration, the US desperately tries to pull the Philippines into its orbit to undermine China’s position and power.
China opposes the formation of aggressive blocs in the region; it strategically employs economic and trade relations to neutralize the US role and attract US allies and partners. This approach aims to integrate the neighboring small and middle powers like the Philippines into Beijing’s economic ventures, a realm where the US falls short. The effectiveness of China’s approach can be measured by its success in attracting US allies in the region to participate in its economic initiatives. This approach was evident during Philippines President Marcos’s state visit to China, where despite existing disagreements, efforts were made to cultivate cooperative ties in economic sectors. He secured investment pledges of $22.8 billion and infrastructure financing loans. In the foreseeable future, China will likely employ diplomatic strategies to ease tensions in the SCS. It will also leverage its economic clout to alleviate the security concerns of states such as the Philippines, aiming to lessen their reliance on US security commitments in the region. Therefore, neutralizing the stances of allies in the Pacific region will question the undue security leadership of the US in the region.
The Author is an M.phil in Strategic Studies from National Defense University (NDU), Islamabad. He is a Research Assistant at Strategic Vision Institution (SVI), Islamabad. He tweets @Bakarrrr0013.