The Philippines’ action to remove a floating barrier installed by China at the entrance of Scarborough Shoal, one of the disputed areas in the South China Sea. may appear trivial but it is being seen as a direct challenge to the Chinese hegemony. And this assumes a greater significance in the wake of ASEAN countries joining hands for a first-ever military exercise to maintain peace and stability in the sea.
Philippine Secretary of National Defense Gilberto Teodoro Jr. said the country will stand up to ‘bully’ China. “And if we don’t stop, China is going to creep and creep into what is within our sovereign jurisdiction, our sovereign rights and within our territory,” he said.1 Most ASEAN countries are failing to exercise their maritime rights as China lays claim to over 90 percent of the South China Sea claiming it to be its territory.
ASEAN is an intergovernmental organisation, which has ten Southeast Asian member countries, namely, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
With an eye on the rising assertiveness of Beijing in the region, all ASEAN countries decided to involve their army, naval, and special forces in the drill. Initially, there were doubts over the participation of a few ASEAN countries including Vietnam and Cambodia, which maintain close ties with China. However, the release of a new map by China reiterating its claim almost all of the South China Sea agitated the ASEAN countries.
Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines rejected the Chinese claim calling it “invalid” and asked Beijing to act in conformity with international law.23 It also portrayed China as a threat to the ASEAN countries’ sovereignty and the global rule-based order.4 Soon, the first-ever joint military exercise was held in which all ASEAN countries participated actively. “ASEAN has never held a joint drill of any kind so it’s high time one took place. It starts off with baby steps and it’s important to see what happens next,” said Thomas Daniel, a senior fellow at Kuala Lumpur-based Institute of Strategic and International Studies. 5
The barrier removal by the Philippines Coast Guard appears to be a small incident for the world, but it was an act of bravery by a small nation against a powerful military power. Commodore Jay Tarriela, spokesman for the Philippine Coast Guard, said the goal was to show the Filipino people, to show the world, that we’re now going to stand up against the bully.”6 The Philippines has been asking the Beijing government to stop “coercion and intimidation.”7
While China tried to belittle the incident calling it a “self-amusement ” by the Philippines, it has vowed to safeguard its sovereignty over the disputed Scarborough Shoal which Beijing calls Huangyan Dao.8 China called the removal of the barrier “intrusion” into the Chinese territory and warned the Philippines not to repeat the wrong approach of confronting China on the South China Sea issue.9
As the Philippines is getting bolder and its recent actions may encourage other ASEAN countries to stand up to Chinese aggression, China may choose to retaliate, said Karishma Vaswani, a senior journalist covering Asia politics.10 “Beijing is not used to this kind of push back, and will not want to set a precedent in the contested waters, or worse still — lose face
— while it is distracted at home with the slowdown in its economy,” she said.11
While a few geopolitical analysts are expecting military action from Beijing, some refuted any such possibility, thanks to the defence treaty between the US and the Philippines, which they feel would act as a deterrent for China.12 Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said the US-Philippines alliance would deter China from overt military action.13 The US too has cleared that it would stand by its commitment of defending the Philippines from any armed attack.
Lindsey Ford, deputy assistant secretary of the US Defense Department
“The Defense department has been incredibly clear when it comes to our treaty commitments to the Philippines.”14
1 https://edition.cnn.com/2023/09/29/asia/philippines-defense-secretary-interview- china-tensions-south-china-sea-intl-hnk/index.html
2 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-08-31/vietnam-opposes-new-china- map-claiming-south-china-sea-islands?leadSource=uverify%20wall
3 https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/vietnam-opposes-china-s-new-national-map- 4648426.html
4 https://www.asiasentinel.com/p/china-shoots-foot-10-dash-line-map 5 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/9/25/baby-steps-for-asean-as-it-wraps-up- first-ever-joint-military-drills
6 https://www.wsj.com/world/asia/how-a-tiny-crew-struck-a-blow-against-china-with-a- wooden-boat-and-a-knife-fc397ee1
7 https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/philippines-tells-china-to-stop-coercion- intimidation-in-south-china-sea-dispute
10 https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2023-09-28/china-and-the-philippines- are-on-a-collision-course-in-south-china-sea?leadSource=uverify%20wall
11 https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2023-09-29/china-grumbles-as-the- philippines-gets-audacious-over-a-disputed-island- ln4o1tsw?srnd=all&leadSource=uverify%20wall
12 https://www.wsj.com/world/asia/how-a-tiny-crew-struck-a-blow-against-china-with-a- wooden-boat-and-a-knife-fc397ee1 13 https://edition.cnn.com/2023/09/29/asia/south-china-sea-tensions-philippines-china- us-explainer-intl-hnk/index.html