Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. spent the first 15 months of his term working with the US and its allies to counter China’s incursions in the South China Sea. Now, his government is taking the fight more directly to Beijing in a move that could force the US to make some tough choices.
(Bloomberg) — Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. spent the first 15 months of his term working with the US and its allies to counter China’s incursions in the South China Sea. Now, his government is taking the fight more directly to Beijing in a move that could force the US to make some tough choices.
Marcos this week ordered a “special operation” in which his coast guard removed a barrier installed by China at the entrance of the Scarborough Shoal, a chain of reefs and rocks the two sides claim as their own. Footage posted by the Philippine coast guard shows a knife-wielding man in scuba gear slicing through a rope connecting buoys that they say threatened fishermen and was “a clear violation of international law.”
The move, the coast guard says, is part of a strategy developed over several months to retake the area — a traditional fishing ground for the Philippines and its neighbors — which Beijing has effectively controlled since 2012 after a weeks-long standoff with Manila. China Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin quickly warned the Philippines “not to make provocations or seek troubles.”
The Philippine coast guard said it intends to sustain patrols in the shoal, though neither Marcos nor his senior defense, military and foreign affairs officials made any statements on the plan on Scarborough Shoal. There are questions about how far Manila is willing to go and whether the US — which has remained quiet on the latest developments — would really have its back if the situation escalates. America’s muted response to a crisis over the same shoal more than a decade ago preceded China’s takeover of the area.
“Our mutual defense treaties would lose most if not all of their credibility if we stayed out of it,” said Carl Schuster, a former operations director at US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center. “The US cannot leave the Philippines in the lurch.”
Officials at the US State Department didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
One thing is clear: the barrier’s removal — and the coast guard’s suggestion of more action to come — all but closes the chapter on an era of foreign policy under former President Rodrigo Duterte that veered toward China. And with tensions rising in the South China Sea, it represents a growing assertiveness in the Philippines’ bid to protect its sovereignty from a far bigger and more powerful foe.
“What it marks is a clear change from the Duterte approach of being nice to China and hoping that that would protect the Philippines from problems,” said Bill Hayton, author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia. “That the Americans clarified its mutual defense treaty means that there’s a bit more willingness on the Philippine side to go toe-to-toe.”
The Scarborough Shoal, in particular, is a sore point in the Philippines’ alliance with the US. Duterte’s Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin would years later blame the Obama administration for failing to stop China from seizing the shoal in 2012 after the standoff.
At that time, the Philippines withdrew its vessels from the waters surrounding the reef following negotiations that included the US. Duterte had said China, in turn, didn’t honor an agreement to also pull its ships, and instead occupied the area. And the US did nothing, according to Locsin.
Crucially, that served as a precursor to President Xi Jinping’s move to build military installations throughout the South China Sea.
Since Marcos took office last year, Washington and Manila have expanded defense cooperation, with American forces able to access military outposts including some near Taiwan. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in July reiterated the US’s “ironclad commitment” to defend the Philippines, saying the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty covers coast guard vessels in the South China Sea.
The two sides are considering even more access for US troops and are planning joint exercises. The Philippines has also sought new partnerships with US allies like Japan and Australia and is even reportedly weighing the creation of artificial islands to install new command posts.
That hasn’t stopped Beijing from asserting ownership over nearly all of the resource-rich sea. Nor has the fact those claims were refuted by an international arbitration panel at The Hague in 2016. The run-ins have been rising along with a record number of incursions by Chinese ships. In 2022, China’s coast guard maintained near-daily patrols in the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands, where the Philippines maintains a garrison.
The removal of structures such as a barrier isn’t a new phenomena in the long running dispute between competing Asian claimants, with the dismantling of objects including sovereignty markers more of a common occurrence in the 1990s. Yet the Philippines’ latest move risks angering China, which now has the world’s largest navy by number of warships.
Whether China is “sending more ships or being more aggressive, there should be an anticipation of a response,” said Rommel Ong, a retired rear admiral in the Philippine Navy. “This shows what we wanted to do in the last six years but couldn’t do before. It’s going beyond the megaphone diplomacy that we usually do.”
To be sure, Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo this week said the South China Sea issue is not the only factor in the country’s relationship with China, but that the Philippines seeks to manage dispute peacefully and through the rule of law. Beijing too, won’t be rash, according to Dongshu Liu, assistant professor specializing in Chinese politics at the City University of Hong Kong.
“China will probably issue a strong statement, but isn’t likely to take strong action,” the professor said. “China wants to make sure that the conflict is under control.”
The Philippines’ newfound assertiveness can be explained, in part, by Southeast Asia’s inability to take a tough stance on the maritime issue, despite countries from Vietnam to Indonesia facing similar situations. China and Southeast Asia have been working on a code of conduct meant to resolve confrontations, though talks have dragged on for two decades.
Coast Guard Commodore Jay Tarriela, who’s among those at the frontlines of the Philippine operations in South China Sea, expressed confidence in their bid to retake the shoal.
“I think they are going to have a hard time” figuring out “how to maintain the barrier because we also took away the anchor,” he said.
–With assistance from Andreo Calonzo, Cliff Venzon, Jane Pong and Kari Lindberg.
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