Philippines and Changing South China Sea Dynamics

China is taking coercive actions in the shoals and the adjacent waters that fall within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. In the face of China’s pressure in the South China Sea, Philippines has strengthened defence and security cooperation with the US and India.

Over the past decade, China’s intensification of its hard-line territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, matched by its unilateral actions, have threatened regional peace and stability. In the East China Sea, the Chinese Ministry of Defence unilaterally declared the establishment of the East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone on 23 November 2013. It required that aircrafts flying in the zone comply with its procedures or face defensive emergency measures. In the South China Sea (SCS), the developments have been particularly significant with the construction of massive artificial islands which started around December 2013. This large-scale land reclamation in the SCS which includes the building of military facilities and deployment of military forces on these islands has escalated tensions.

Amongst the Southeast Asian countries that have contested territorial and jurisdictional claims with China in the SCS, tensions with the Philippines are on the rise. This is especially in light of increasing China’s coercive actions in the shoals and the adjacent waters that fall within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. The latest incident being that of a Chinese coast guard and a maritime militia vessel colliding with a Philippines coast guard ship and a military-run supply boat on 22 October 2023, in the contested Second Thomas Shoal1 of the Spratly Islands. The incident is the latest to have taken place in the Second Thomas Shoal where on 5 August, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel blocked and shot a water cannon at a Philippine Navy chartered supply boat attempting to reach Sierra Madre.2

Tension between Beijing and Manila also escalated when in September the Philippine Coast Guard said it discovered a floating barrier about 300 metres long during a routine maritime patrol. The barrier at the disputed Scarborough Shoal—called Bajo de Masingloc and Panatag by the Philippines and Huangyan Island by China—was guarded by Chinese Coast Guard vessels that reportedly initiated a series of 15 radio challenges to drive away Filipino fishermen. This was followed by Philippine Coast Guard removing the buoys on the orders of President Marcos Jr, angering Beijing which advised Manila “…not to provoke or stir up trouble”.

China claims 90 per cent of the SCS as its sovereign territory indicated by the blue dash lines on the map in Figure 1. The other two lines represents the EEZ for China (in blue and black) and the Philippines (in orange and black) which are overlapping around the Scarborough Shoal located inside Philippines EEZ but is claimed by China as its ancestral territory since the Yuan dynasty of the 13th century. For China, the stakes are high since Huangyan Island is part of a larger archipelago called Zhongsha Qundao comprising mostly underwater features located in the northern part of the South China Sea. The few rocks of Scarborough Shoal are the only features of Zhongsha Qundao above sea level. If China loses these rocks, it would not only lose the natural resources around the shoal but also the possibility of claiming Zhongsha Qundao and, by consequence, the whole of the South China Sea.

For the Philippines, the stakes are also high. The rich fishing grounds of Scarborough Shoal attract most of the fishermen from the provinces of Zambales, Pangasinan and Bataan. Since the coastal areas of these provinces are depleted, their livelihood mainly depends on the shoal. While no gas and oil exploration has been undertaken, some deposits of polymetallic nodules have been found around the shoal, at a depth of more than 3,000 meters. Apart from the impact on the local economy, there are strategic implications as well. In 1995, Chinese troops occupied and established a strong naval base, equipped with sophisticated system of communications in the Mischief Reef, which is about 200 kms from the Philippine island of Palawan.

Following the incident in the Philippines-claimed Mischief Reef, the risk could be that the Scarborough Shoal could also be transformed into another communication and intelligence hub. However, this could be closer to Luzon and potentially giving Beijing the ability to undertake surveillance activities in the northern part of the main Singapore–Hong Kong and Manila–Hong Kong sea lanes. Therefore, the Scarborough Shoal is considered to be strategically important for the Philippines and China with a major incident taking place in 2012, following the Filipino warship Gregorio Del Pilar that attempted to arrest eight Chinese boats poaching in Scarborough Shoal. Their attempted arrest were blocked by two Chinese marine surveillance vessels which led to a standoff, lasting for few months. Since the standoff, Chinese civilian ships continue patrolling the area nearby the disputed shoal.

The recurrent of such incidence year after year especially during the fishing season led to the Philippine government under President Benigno Aquino III to take the matter to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). After the unanimous ruling by the Arbitration Tribunal on the South China Sea in July 2016, which stated Chinese claims to be unlawful, many expected the new Duterte administration to restart negotiations and take a fundamentally different position. However, Duterte’s desire to attract Chinese concessional infrastructure financing, with the Philippines taking part at the first Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) forum in May 2017, led to a conciliatory approach towards China. Unlike the Aquino administration that was criticised for often siding with the US against China, Duterte sought a more equidistant position between the two major powers.5

During the Duterte administration, there was de-escalation of tension between the Philippines and China through the implementation of a series of policies designed to reduce friction in the Spratly Islands in return for Chinese investments. However, other Southeast Asian claimant states particularly Vietnam had to bear the brunt of Chinese muscle flexing during this period. Vietnam witnessed increased Chinese military presence on the Paracels which undertook extensive reclamation works and deployed anti-ship and surface-to-surface missiles as well as fighter jets to the disputed archipelago.

The current administration under President Marcos Jr is taking a fundamentally different position unlike his predecessor, Duterte, who adopted a non-confrontational approach and a policy of strategic re-orientation away from the United States towards China.6 On the SCS issue, Marcos Jr before taking office, made it clear that he would support the 2016 arbitration ruling and would continue using the ruling to assert the country’s territorial rights. During President Marcos Jr first state visit to Beijing in January 2023, Chinese officials agreed to strike a compromise over the contested waters while also establishing new emergency hotline between maritime officers of the two countries.

However, over the last few months, as a consequence of continuing incidences in the Spartly, and the Scarborough Shoal, fuelled by Chinese actions has led the Philippines to push back against China. The posture against China would have been unexpected a year ago, since it was expected that the new administration under Marcos Jr could adopt a more balanced policy by engaging with both China and the United States. This was also emphasised by President Marcos Jr during his inaugural speech where he stressed on the importance of strengthening relations with both the US and China which would “..make a more balanced and stable new global environment for us to work in”.7

The string of incidents in the SCS dating back to the beginning of this year has altered President Marcos Jr’s approach to dealing with China in the SCS. Some of these instances include Chinese ships directing a military-grade laser at a Philippines Coast Guard vessel, blasting Philippine charter boats with water cannons, and erecting physical barriers at Scarborough Shoal.8 Given the push back China is witnessing in the SCS from the current administration in Manila, has once again led to renewed Chinese pressure to make the Filipino government bend to its will. While there has also been increasing tension with Vietnam and Malaysia in the SCS, with a number of actions undertaken by the Chinese maritime forces, the focus in 2023 seems to be on the Philippines. In this emerging scenario that is causing a wave of uncertainty including the worrying trends in the Taiwan Straits, President Marcos Jr has been prioritising and renewing partnerships in order to defend his country’s territorial rights in the SCS.

In the face of China’s pressure in the SCS, there has been a deepening of defence and security cooperation between the Philippines and the US. The United States been increasing its military engagement in the Indo-Pacific region through renewing its old defence partnerships and also increasing its presence through frequent joint military exercises, high-level visits, and arms trade, military assistance to allies and partners, and cooperation on defence technology.9 The US has repeatedly stated that an attack on Philippines in the SCS would make it invoke the Mutual Defence Treaty, whereby the US will defend the Philippines.

The Philippines and the US on 2 February 2023 announced a deal which would give American forces access to four more military sites in the Southeast Asian country. This announcement is as per the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed in 2014 that enabled the American military to station troops and weapons at sites across the Philippines.10 The four new military sites could include three Philippine bases near Taiwan—two in the Northern Province of Cagayan and one in the Isabela province—in addition to one in Palawan near the South China Sea.11 This takes the total US bases to nine in the Philippines and thus, creating the largest American military presence in the country in over three decades.12 Granting access to facilities in the north of Philippines as per the updated EDCA could play a role in case of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, and thus, contribute to American deterrent posture in the region.13

In April this year, the US and the Philippines conducted their largest-ever joint military exercise involving more than 17,600 military personnel. The training aimed at developing interoperability and improved capability in the areas of maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban and aviation operations, cyber defence, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness.14 Further, in October 2023, the Philippines and the US undertook a 12-day maritime drill as part of their annual Sama Sama exercise. This year’s edition included more than 1,000 sailors from the two allies conducting anti-submarine, surface and electronic warfare drills off Manila and south of Luzon.

Increasing military pressure from China in the SCS is pushing the Philippines to step up defence ties with India. The year 2019 marked 70 years of the diplomatic relations between India and the Philippines. The strengthening of the India–ASEAN relations following the launch of the ‘Look East’ policy had a positive impact on the bilateral relationship with the Philippines.

At the turn of the 21st century, converging defence and security interests included the need to combat increasing terrorism, and transnational crimes like illicit drug trafficking.16 In order to further strengthen the bilateral defence cooperation, the Joint Defence Cooperation Committee (JDCC) was constituted which had its first meeting in Manila in January 2012. The JDCC meetings reviewed and exchanged views on evolving regional security concerns as well as multilateral engagements. The two parties exchanged views on future activities of cooperation that would further consolidate their defence and security relations. Under this, cooperation in the maritime space has emerged as a major component.17 Philippines’ close collaboration with India on defence and security matters also includes bilateral naval drills and multilateral joint naval drills. In 2019, India along with Japan and the US participated in a joint naval drill in the SCS.

To further build on the levels of interoperability and ensure peaceful and secure seas for all, the Indian Navy has made a number of port visits to the Philippines. Indian Navy Vessel, INS Rana (D52) visited Manila from 23–26 October 2018 and from 23–26 October 2019, Indian Navy ships—guided missile frigate INS Sahyadri and anti-submarine corvette INS Kiltan—made a port call at Manila.18 On 23 August 2021, two ships of the Indian Navy, namely INS Ranvijay (Guided Missile Destroyer, D55) and INS Kora (Guided Missile Corvette, P61), carried out a Maritime Partnership Exercise with BRP Antonio Luna (Frigate, FF 151) of the Philippine Navy in the West Philippine Sea.19

Apart from the port calls and joint naval exercises, a bilateral MoU was signed between the Indian Navy and the Philippines Coast Guard on sharing of White Shipping Innovation in October 2019. The MoU seeks to enhance maritime security through sharing of information on non-military and non-government shipping vessels.20 At the 4th Meeting of the India–Philippines Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation held on 6 November 2020, both sides agreed to further strengthen defence engagement and maritime cooperation, especially in military training and education, capacity-building, regular goodwill visits, and procurement of defence equipment. Philippines has also shown interest for the purchase of the BrahMos cruise missiles. Further, both countries agreed to enhance cooperation in the area of CT with information exchange between concerned agencies and support in terms of specialised training needs.21

In January 2022, India and the Philippines eventually signed a US$ 374.96 million deal for BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles. The deal includes the delivery of three Missiles batteries, training for operators and maintainers as well as the necessary Integrated Logistics Support (ILS) package.22 During the visit of Philippines Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo to New Delhi in June 2023, both sides identified various areas for defence cooperation including joint patrols and enhancing maritime domain awareness. Further, the Indian Coast Guard and Philippines Coast Guard are also working on a MoU on Enhanced Maritime Cooperation.23

Given recurrent incidences in the SCS, therefore, the Philippines has sought to counter Chinese assertiveness by enhancing cooperation with its traditional security ally, the US. Further, given the shared interests for economic growth and development, which hinges on peace and stability in the region, the India–Philippines bilateral defence cooperation has also been strengthened.

For the Philippines, like the other claimant Southeast Asian countries, China represents both an economic opportunity and a serious security challenge. Instability or even an armed conflict in the Spratly or the Scarborough Shoal would have serious implications on the regional security and the world economy, given that strategically vital sea lines of communication traverses the SCS. While Philippines claims to the several islands in the SCS are based on its right of discovery, China’s occupation of the Mischief Reef in 1995 proceeded by building and militarising islands in the SCS indicates its unwavering advances of its historical-based territorial claims.

The increasing number of incidences in the past few months has become the focal point of confrontation between the Philippines and China. This shift can be attributed to China’s growing assertiveness from around 2016, compounded by alarming deteriorating situation across the Taiwan Straits. Philippines and other claimant countries are rightfully concerned that it may adversely affect the situation in the adjacent SCS.







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