Where: South China Sea, Spratly Islands
Who’s involved: People’s Republic of China (PRC), Philippines, United States (US)
Since early August, the Philippines has been supplying equipment to troops stationed on the Second Thomas Shoal, a Philippine military outpost in the disputed South China Sea. Following the 2016 UN Convention Law of the Sea ruling filed by the Philippines, the court found that China’s occupation of several islands in the South China Sea were illegal. Despite the ruling, China’s Coast Guards have remained on the island.
On 05/08/2023, another China Coast Guard vessel shot a water cannon at a Philippine supply boat. This follows attacks against Philippine vessels earlier in the year, when China Coast Guard shined military-grade lasers at Philippine sailors.
On 26/09/2023, the Philippines Coast Guard cut an underwater rope put into place by Chinese forces to prevent Philippines fishing boats from legally fishing in the region. The Philippines Coast Guard said that the “barrier posed a hazard to navigation, a clear violation of international law”.
Manila has condemned the PRC’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea following the PRC’s attempts to block the Philippines from resupplying a military outpost in the Second Thomas Shoal, an island inside the Philippines exclusive economic zone. China has condemned the ‘provocations’ as unnecessary.
On 15/10/2023, the Philippines’ House of Representatives and its Senate were allegedly under cyber attack. The online portals of both government bodies were out of service throughout the week. While not all of the details have been made available, there have been overtures of a harsher cybersecurity stance made by the Philippine government. Government sources claim that there was a “spike of attacks” on administrative bodies.
On 26/10/2023, US President Biden warned China that the US will defend the Philippines if there is any “attack” in the South China Sea, invoking the Philippines Mutual Defense Pact signed in 1951.
The Philippines' resupplying missions and confrontation with China’s Coast Guard demonstrates a more forceful assertion of its rights in the South China Sea. While the Philippines won the UNCLOS case in 2016 which rejected China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, in practice, China’s Coast Guard has stationed vessels in Philippines shoals, developing new oil rigs and actively preventing fishing boats from using the reefs. Under former president Duterte, the Philippines was more friendly toward China and Russia and weakened ties with the United States. For current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the government is feeling more confident in its support from the US to confront the PRC’s aggression in the South China Sea.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has signed further defense treaties with Japan and the U.S with fears mounting over a potential invasion of Taiwan. The Philippines is 93 miles away from the island and would become involved in some way. After 30 years since US troops left the island, in February 2023, the Philippines announced that the US has access to four new military bases.
The dispute is likely to escalate in the near future, given the determination of the Philippines government to reassert its sovereignty over its waters. The Philippines-China relationship is likely to deteriorate. The PRC’s response is to use force to prevent the Philippines from asserting its right to fish in waters, resulting in the deaths of 3 Philippine fishermen. As well as constant collisions, it remains to be seen how China will further respond. The Philippines is highly dependent on trade with China, and could suffer from import bans through China’s economic coercion.
China’s economic and cyber pressure on the Philippines could increase as a result. The Philippines Transport Secretary announced that China had “lost interest” in developing two railway lines between Philippine island of Luzon. Senators have indicated that they are looking to Japan and South Korean sources of investment as an alternative. The Philippines is highly dependent on trade with China, however, and is highly vulnerable to China’s economic coercion.
In response to the recent cyber attacks, the Philippine Army’s Chief of Staff, General Romeo Brawner Jr., has promised to establish a joint Cyber Command. The General claimed that attacks on the cyber front are occurring “almost every day”. In the same statement, he said that the military would immediately put a halt to construction of telecom towers on military bases. It was pointed out that state-owned mobile carrier, China Telecom, is largely responsible for this infrastructure.
Tensions between the Philippines and China are likely to continue as the Philippines reasserts its rights to the Spratly Islands and the PRC responds forcefully against Philippine vessels. The concerns over an invasion of Taiwan has made the Philippines reconsider the threats from an assertive China. It will only push the Philippines closer toward the US and regional allies. At the same time, the Philippines is vulnerable to China’s economic and cyber coercion as it is highly dependent on trade with China, even though it is boosting security ties with the US. Given the US mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, there is a chance that the heightened tensions could be a key source of friction in the Indo-Pacific.