Rising Philippines-China tensions could develop into maritime confrontation

FILE PHOTO: A Chinese Coast Guard ship uses a water cannon against a Filipino resupply vessel heading towards the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, in the South China Sea, December 10, 2023. Philippine Coast Guard/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Over the past week, confrontations between Chinese and Philippine vessels in the South China Sea have raised concerns that the situation is deteriorating, posing a risk of potential loss of lives and potentially drawing the world’s two most powerful militaries into open conflict.

Analysts expressed worry about the escalating cycle of tensions in the South China Sea. They consider the clash on Sunday, where Chinese Coast Guard water cannons disabled a Philippine boat, as the most serious of four such incidents this year near Second Thomas Shoal. The clash occurred as Philippine boats sought to deliver supplies to the deteriorating Sierra Madre, a ship grounded on Second Thomas Shoal, which China claims as its territory. The Chinese Coast Guard attempted to stop them, deploying water cannons that caused severe damage to one vessel’s engines, leading to concerns about the safety of the crew.

While no injuries were reported on Sunday, analysts caution that the clashes indicate the potential for serious injuries or deaths. Given the Philippines’ mutual defence treaty with the United States, such incidents involving Filipino casualties could prompt U.S. intervention.

The U.S. has consistently reaffirmed its support for its Philippine allies, citing the mutual defence treaty, but China insists that third parties have no right to intervene in the dispute.

The situation revolves around competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, with China asserting sovereignty over most of the region. A 2016 international tribunal ruling favoured the Philippines, but China has disregarded the decision.

Second Thomas Shoal, also known as Ayungin Shoal to the Philippines and Ren’ai Reef to China, is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The Sierra Madre, grounded in 1999, is manned by Filipino marines to assert the Philippines’ claims, but the deteriorating vessel requires regular repairs.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has adopted a tougher stance on Philippine’s’ territorial claims, strengthening military ties with the U.S. Analysts argue that China’s recent actions suggest an attempt to test the limits of U.S. commitment to its allies.

As tensions escalate, analysts recommend a more assertive U.S. response, potentially involving military actions such as resupplying the Sierra Madre or providing joint escorts for Philippine resupply missions. The importance of these resupply missions is underscored, as a lack of supplies to the Sierra Madre could embolden China further.

Despite other global crises, such as those in Ukraine and Gaza, analysts stress the need for the U.S. to prioritize Asia and demonstrate unwavering support for its allies in the region.


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