A China Coast Guard ship is seen approaching a Philippines Coast Guard vessel escorting a resupply mission for Philippine troops stationed at a grounded warship, in the South China Sea, September 8, 2023. Photo: Twitter Screengrab / Reuters

“These [dangerous] 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,” the top Philippine military official said 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 1970s, 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 US, 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.

The Philippine Coast Guard released video of two Chinese Coast Guard vessels attempting to block a Philippine resupply ship in the South China Sea. Image: Philippine Coast Guard

Lull before the storm

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.

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.

“[Xi’s] response to me [was], ‘we’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war’”, claimed Duterte following one of his meetings with the Chinese leader. Beijing never confirmed nor denied the validity of Duterte’s statements.

The Filipino leader followed this up by taking a profoundly fatalistic position, warning that standing up to China, including over the Thitu Island, is tantamount to “prepar[ing] for suicide missions’.” When a suspected Chinese militia vessel rammed into, and subsequently sank, a Filipino fishing vessel, Duterte contradicted his own defense officials by dismissing it as a “little maritime accident.”

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 US and emphasized the centrality of dialogue with China.

Barely a year into office, however, the Marcos Jr administration shifted gears on the South China Sea. This was born out of the realization that Duterte’s China-friendly foreign policy had only weakened the country’s position, with China refusing to offer any meaningful concessions despite more than six years of constant high-level dialogue.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shows the way to then-Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: Asia Times Files / AFP

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 US 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.

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.

As the Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Jay Tarriela argued, “Under the previous [Duterte] government, any issues involving China were only brought to public attention if they were particularly severe”, but under Marcos Jr there is a “commitment to transparency and…resolve to protect the country’s sovereignty.”

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 US and its allies.

Tough choices

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.

By leveraging its deepening defense ties with the West, Manila, now equipped with and deploying evermore modern vessels, hopes to break Beijing’s encirclement strategy in the contested waters.

The beached Philippine ship at Second Thomas Reef has become the hottest flash point in the South China Sea. Image: Twitter

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 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. 

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on X, formerly Twitter, at @Richeydarian