China’s expansive claim of South China Sea prompts Philippines to turn to allies

China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea as its sovereign waters and rejects a 2016 international arbitration ruling which stated it has no legal basis for the expansive claims. In recent months, there were numerous confrontations between Filipino boats and Chinese Coast Guard vessels in the disputed waters.

In a reboot of U.S.-Philippines relationship after former Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China and gave the snub to the U.S., president Ferdinand Marcos Jr turned to strengthening the alliance with the U.S. and other allies. 

When Ferdinand Marcos Jr won the Philippine presidency in 2022, U.S. president Joe Biden was the first leader to give a congratulatory call, with Marcos sharing his pleasure with his brother-in-law some days later.  Subsequently, Marcos made two trips to the U.S. in less than a year, with his second trip on May 1 last year to discuss economic cooperation and the Indo-Pacific region with Biden. In reciprocation, numerous high-ranking Biden officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, visited the Philippines. 

Biden has on various occasions reiterated the U.S.’ “ironclad” commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines and that “any attack on Philippine aircraft, vessels or armed forces in the South China Sea would invoke our mutual defense treaty”.

According to a report by ISEAS, Marcos put the U.S.-Philippines relationship “front and center in his foreign policy” due to an increasingly hostile regional environment because of China’s military assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea waters that “undermines the Philippines’ national security”.

The ISEAS report stated: “In the 12 months since Marcos was elected president, Washington and Manila have signaled their commitment to alliance renewal in two important ways: regular high-level exchanges and dialogue; and increased military and security cooperation.” 

The report also added: “President Marcos highlighted America’s key role in upholding the rules-based international order and freedom of navigation, asserting ‘I cannot see the Philippines in the future without having the United States as a partner. When we are in crisis, we look to the United States.’” 

During a speech at the 87th anniversary of the Armed Forces of the Philippines on December 19, 2022, Marcos stated that as “we are now confronted with a different and complex security environment, it brings with it new challenges that require us to adapt”.

China wants to upend the current rules-based world order and overtake the U.S. as the dominant global superpower. In Asia, besides insisting that South China Sea is its sovereign waters, China has also repeatedly stated that Taiwan, an independent country never ruled by the Communist Party of China, is an indispensable part of China, and has not ruled out using force to invade Taiwan.

In April 2023, the U.S.-Philippines 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue produced a joint statement declaring “support for unimpeded lawful commerce and full respect for international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight, and other lawful uses of the sea.” 

The statement also stated the “strong objections to the unlawful maritime claims, militarization of reclaimed features, and threatening and provocative activities in the South China Sea, including the recent attempts of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to disrupt the Philippines’ lawful operations at and around Second Thomas Shoal and the repeated massing of PRC maritime militia vessels at several sites within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), including, but not limited to, maritime areas in the vicinity of Iroquois Reef, Sabina Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal, and Whitsun Reef. Such activities also interfere with the livelihoods of fisherfolk and undermine Philippine food security.” 

In April 2024, the Philippines joined Japan for a trilateral summit with the U.S. at the White House, the first of its kind ever. Apart from reinforcing economic ties and technological cooperation, all three countries reiterated their commitments to regional security, in the wake of an increasingly pugilistic China. 

The joint statement from the three countries stated: “We express our serious concerns about the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) dangerous and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. We are also concerned by the militarization of reclaimed features and unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea. We steadfastly oppose the dangerous and coercive use of Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels in the South China Sea, as well as efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation. 

“We reiterate serious concern over the PRC’s repeated obstruction of Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation and the disruption of supply lines to Second Thomas Shoal, which constitute dangerous and destabilizing conduct. The final and legally binding July 12, 2016 Arbitral Tribunal determined that this feature lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and we call on the PRC to abide by the ruling.” 

On May 2, defense chiefs from the U.S., Australia, Japan and the Philippines pledged to boost their cooperation as they met in Hawaii for their second joint meeting amid concerns about China’s behaviors in the South China Sea. This meeting came after the four countries conducted their first joint naval exercises in the South China Sea in April. 

The Philippines and U.S. military has conducted the 39th iteration of Balikatan, the largest annual bilateral training exercise between the two allies, from April 22 to May 10.  The exercise directly supports the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty by enhancing military cooperation and readiness between the two militaries. Balikatan is a Tagalog phrase that means shoulder-to-shoulder, describing the spirit of the annual exercise and the close friendship between the Philippines and the U.S.

Photo credit: iStock/ Andrey Kulagin

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