After Chinese coastguards fired a water cannon on a Philippine boat, commentators warned that tensions between China and the US-aligned Philippines over a territorial dispute were likely to escalate into a battle between the two countries.
As China modernizes and increases its military and becomes more aggressive in its claims over the South China Sea and Taiwan, there is rising worry throughout the world over China’s naval actions. Concern about military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow has also been heightened by recent joint maneuvers with Russia, during which a flotilla cruised near Alaska this weekend.
China’s coast guard fired water cannons against Philippine resupply ships on Saturday as they sailed toward the Spratly Islands’ Second Thomas Shoal, which China also claims. The Sierra Madre, a decommissioned Philippine battleship that was sunk near the Shoal in 1999 to bolster Manila’s claims, is now home to Filipino servicemen and women. In November of 2021, a Philippine supply crew was attacked with water cannon by the Chinese coast guard.
Philippine authorities have called in the Chinese ambassador to register a diplomatic complaint over what they see as unlawful behavior and risky maneuvers by the Chinese crew. According to the foreign ministry, communications with Beijing were cut off throughout the crisis.
The United States, European Union, France, Japan, and Australia all expressed their solidarity with the Philippines and their disapproval of China’s activities. The United States government has reiterated its commitment to a mutual defense pact, which states that it would come to the Philippines’ aid in the event of an armed assault against Philippine government vessels or military troops.
Researchers at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, led by Blake Herzinger, have found “significant escalatory potential” in Philippine claims to the South China Sea. Without meaning to, “Beijing’s risky behavior in the region has the potential to draw the two powers into conflict,” Herzinger said.
Alessio Patalano, a professor of war and strategy in east Asia at King’s College London, said that it was still unknown what conduct would trigger the treaty and how near the event over the weekend came. Each side has produced their own video documentation of the altercation. Images purportedly showing boats from China’s maritime militia aiding in the interception of the Philippines supply mission were also shared by Jay Taryela, a spokesman for the Philippine coastguard.
Contrary to what Beijing may think, according to Patalano, the United States does consider treaty coverage for action in contested locations like the Shoal.
If the situation worsens, the United States and the Philippines will have a serious talk about how to work together so that the Philippines maintains as much control as possible.