February 2024

Challenging China head-on

US troops are returning to the Philippines after three decades to checkmate China in the South China Sea. Yvonne Gill assesses the situation

Concerned over ever-growing Chinese belligerence, several countries are actively collaborating with the island nation of the Philippines to call out Beijing’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea. This time, the US and its allies look more determined to counter Beijing’s unsubstantiated claims over what it refers to as the nine-dash line and the provocative manoeuvres of the People’s Liberation Army’s naval vessels and aircraft in the tension-ridden region.

More than 30 years after the US shut down its bases in the Philippines, Manila agreed in February last year to allow American force set up five new bases under a 2014 defence pact. Unlike former President Rodrigo Duterte, the new incumbent, Ferdin and Marcos Jr, who took office in June 2022, has been favourably disposed to allowing American military bases. The Subic Bay Naval Base in the northern Philippines was once the largest US base abroad.

Amid heightened tensions between Manila and Beijing, the Indian Navy and the Philippine Navy conducted a maritime partnership exercise (MPX) in the South China Sea in December last year, while the Philippines and Australia concluded a series of joint maritime and aerial patrols in the South China Sea in November. They plan to conduct joint patrols in the future together with the US, with other allies joining in, according to officials.

Pic of Indian and Philippine Navy vessels conducting a maritime partnership exercise (MPX) in the South China Sea in December 2023, with caption – The Indian and Philippine Navies conducted a maritime partnership exercise in the South China Sea in December last year
The Indian and Philippine Navies conducted a maritime partnership exercise in the South China Sea in December last year

Besides planning to hold joint patrols, France and the Philippines are also contemplating signing a defence pact that would allow both countries to send their armed forces to each other’s territory for joint exercises. Hitherto, the Philippines had signed such a defence agreement only with the US and Australia.

Meanwhile, discussions are afoot between the Philippines and Japan about continuing on a reciprocal access agreement for troop deployments, military exercises and other security cooperation. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) will carry out more such exercises to assert the Philippines’ sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea and will engage with more countries for capacity-building and defence cooperation, a PCG statement said . The Coast Guard ‘recognised the significance of stronger partnerships with foreign counterparts, including the United States, Japan, Australia, Republic of Korea and Germany, in developing the PCG and becoming an organization of world-class guardians of the sea,’ PCG Commandant Admiral Ronnie Gil Gavan stated.

China lays claim to most of the South China Sea on the basis of thenine-dash line

‘The China-Philippines maritime dispute is an issue between the two countries, and no third party has any right to interfere,’ Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Wu Qian insisted, in reaction to the ‘French plan to hold joint patrols with the Philippines in the South China Sea and a joint drill between the Philippines and India in the region’, according to a ‘tweet’ on the People’s Daily’s  X handle.

At their meeting commemorating 50 years of friendship in Tokyo last December, leaders of Japan and the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have vowedto enhance maritime security and cooperation to protectvital supply chains. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, however, hit back saying that any effort by anyone to assert territorial claims in the South China Sea ‘will take the toll’. In a phone call to Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo, Wang ominously warned that China would ‘respond resolutely’ if the Philippine side ‘misjudges the situation…or colludes with ill-intentioned external forces’.

PLA aircraft have routinely violated the Air Defence Identification Zone

China lays claim to most of the South China Sea on the basis of thenine-dash line, an imaginary linewhich extends from the coast of China’s Hainan Island, runs close to the coast of Vietnam, and goes deep into the South China Sea, enclosing the Spratly Islands. The claim, initially referred to as an eleven-dash line, was first made by the Kuomintang ,whichruled mainland China before Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) overthrew itin an armed revolution and rode to power in 1949.

The CCP revised the claim to the nine-dash and later ten-dash line to include Taiwan, though none of the previous Communist leaders tried to enforce the territorial claim. The claim became irrelevant after China and the Philippines signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in December 1982. The Convention ratified by most countries in 1994 determines every country’s territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone and its jurisdiction over resources within the EEZ.

Deng Xiaoping (l) and Jiang Zemin (c) pursued a non-confrontational foreign policy, but that changed when Xi Jinping (r) ascended in the hierarchy

China signed this covenant under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, who was succeeded by Jiang Zemin, both of whom pursued a non-confrontational foreign policy. But all that changed when Xi Jinping ascended in the hierarchy. In 2012, China occupied Scarborough Shoal, which is within the Philippines’s EEZ. The Philippines took the Scar borough issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.Underan assertive Xi Jinpingas the supreme leader, China starting constructing military bases on Mischief Reef and Subi Reef in open defiance of international law.

Since then the world’s geopolitics has undergone a sea change. And so has American strategic policy, which has shifted its cold war focus from the former Soviet Union to China, an emerging economic powerhouse. With Xi at the helm, the CCP no longer hides its superpower ambitions, making Washington jittery and cautious,as opposed to the rather cavalier approach it had a decade ago to China’s growing might, for which the US and the West at large were hugely responsible.

According to military experts, the Philippines and Japan, are ‘among the highest priority’ countries for the USin case of aconflict in the Taiwan Strait. America’s military presence has to be there across the remote first island chain – connecting Okinawa to Taiwan and the Philippines – to effectively counter any Chinese misadventure.

Over a decade or so, all three wings of the PLA have been trying to assert control across the South China Sea. They have built outposts equipped with offensive and defensive facilities on the Spratly islands and reclaimed reefs. 

At the same time, PLA forces havebeen indulging in coercive and dangerous operational manoeuvres against American and allied naval ships, boats and aircraft. Some of the instances include the sinking of Vietnamese fishing vessels, harassment of Malaysian offshore energy exploration vessels, flying as close as within 20 feet of US Air Force aircraft. They have also used water cannons and temporarily-blinding military grade lasers to block and target Philippine resupply boats heading towards Second Thomas Shoal, according to US defence officials.

Similarly, PLA aircraft have routinely violated the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) and have been trying to arbitrarily redraw the maritime boundary across the South China Sea in blatant violation of the international conventions and internationally accepted practices.

Finally, following in the footsteps of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), more and more countries of the Indo-Pacific region are joining hands to ensure that there is a rules-based global order, a liberal trading system and freedom of navigation, especially in the South China Sea region. Beijing will have to amend its ways or face the blowback, with even small island nations like the Philippines coming out to fightback. The writing on the wall should be clear for the autocratic rulers of China: Enough is enough.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London