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South China Sea confrontation hits China-Philippines ties

August 8, 2023

A recent incident in the South China Sea involving the Chinese coast guard and a Philippine resupply mission has aggravated tensions between the two countries.

In this handout photo provided by the Philippine Coast Guard, a Chinese coast guard ship uses water canons on a Philippine Coast Guard ship near the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal
Manila said the Chinese coast guard's firing of water cannon at its vessels in the South China Sea was 'illegal' and 'dangerous'Image: Philippine Coast Guard/AP Photo/picture alliance

Tensions are running high between the Philippines and China following a recent confrontation in a disputed area of the South China Sea. 

Manila condemned the Chinese coast guard on Sunday for firing a water cannon at its vessels in the contested waterway, describing it as "illegal" and "dangerous."

Beijing, on the other hand, said it had taken "necessary controls" against Philippine boats that had "illegally" entered its waters.

The incident occurred as the Philippine boats were on a resupply mission to a grounded warship — the BRP Sierra Madre — a World War II-era vessel now used by Manila as a military outpost.

The ship, deliberately grounded by Manila in 1999 to reinforce its sovereignty claims, has long been a flashpoint between the two countries.

The Philippine navy personnel deployed on the crumbling vessel depend upon resupply missions to survive their remote posting.

Beijing sending a message?

Raymond Powell, SeaLight Director at Stanford University's Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, said the incident showed that China wants to exert its maritime power.

"It seems pretty clear that China was trying to send a message that playtime is over and that there are big countries and small countries, and the Philippines needs to remember where it is on the pecking order."

US promises 'ironclad' defense of Philippines

The maritime confrontation is the latest in a long list of complaints between the two sides. It came after Manila protested against the Chinese coast guard's use of a laser against a ship supporting a resupply mission in February. China then claimed the laser was used for "navigation safety." 

Powell, a retired US Air Force colonel, said China's aim is to prevent the BRP Sierra Madre from being used as a military base. But he believes the Chinese military is unlikely to launch a direct attack on the ship.

"I think, lasers, blocking and water cannons are probably about the limit of what China wants to do because quite frankly, in some ways, China's long-term strategy is still working," Powell said. 

"The Philippines has not been able to repair or replace the BRP Sierra Madre. China's entire strategy has been to deny them the ability to do that until the ship does break up or becomes uninhabitable," he added.

"The grounded ship is not going to maintain its structural integrity forever. Eventually, it is going to start to break up, and that is going to precipitate some kind of crisis."

Disputed claims in the SCS

The Second Thomas Shoal is about 200 kilometers (120 miles) from the Philippine island of Palawan and more than 1,000 kilometers from China's nearest major landmass, Hainan island.

And China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually.

The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan all have overlapping territorial claims over the crucial waterway.

In 2016, an international court ruling held that China's claims had no legal basis. But Beijing has ignored the verdict.

What has changed in terms of Manila's approach?

Aaron-Matthew Lariosa, a freelance defense writer and Indo-Pacific observer based in Washington, said these flare-ups are nothing new.

"Actions like these are one of the many ways China enforces its claims in the South China Sea."

But what has changed is the way Manila is publicizing China's aggression, Lariosa noted. "This approach helps counter disinformation and bolsters public awareness on the violations of Philippine sovereignty."

China, Philippines agree to 'manage differences'

The Philippines' policy toward China has also changed markedly under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Under his predecessor, President Rodrigo Duterte, Manila was seen as cozying up to Beijing in the hope of boosting trade and investment.

But Marcos has insisted he will not let China trample on his country's maritime rights. His administration has also strengthened defense ties with former colonial ruler and longtime ally the United States, with Manila granting the US greater access to its military bases.

No end to maritime confrontations?

Powell believes maritime incidents in the South China Sea are likely to continue between Manila and Beijing.

"I don't see what stops them from happening again. The Philippines has been pushing back on a lot of China's aggression," he underlined. 

"These resupply missions seem to be a catalyst for a lot of the drama, and they seem to carry with them the potential for escalation."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco