South China Sea tension reaches inflection point as China, Philippines continues stand-off

With China’s increasing military assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea, in recent months, there were numerous confrontations between the Philippines and China, primarily at the Second Thomas Shoal, home to a small number of Filipino soldiers based on a warship that Manila grounded in 1999 to assert its sovereignty claims. Notably, Chinese ships were using water cannons against Filipino boats.

“Could war break out in the Asia-Pacific as a result of the South China Sea tensions?” This question has been a time-hallowed one indeed, in wake of conflicting sovereignty claims among various stakeholders in the region, including China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia.

A Chinese attack on the Philippines’ boats could potentially bring the U.S. into the conflict as well, leading to more regional instability. The 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty obliges both Manila and Washington to come to each other’s aid should either country be attacked by another power. 

China has rejected the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on July 12, 2016, which stated that Beijing’s historical claims to much of the South China Sea lacked legal basis.

China has dominated over the Second Thomas Shoal, known as Ayungin Shoal locally, part of the disputed Spratly Islands, since the late 1990s till the present day, which has become a flashpoint for escalating hostilities between China and the Philippines. 

Following the Philippines’ move to moor the Sierra Madre, an aging warship, in 1999, on the Second Thomas Shoal, Beijing has been persistent in sending navy and paramilitary vessels to the area, blocking Manila’s attempts to resupply the Madre, and even firing a water cannon at the Filipinos. 

Given Manila’s unrelenting stance in documenting and exposing Chinese actions in the disputed waters, many observers have reverted back to the question if a hot war could actually erupt eventually in the region. 

In an attempt to shore up its domestic political image and portray power, while supported by countries hostile to the U.S., including Iran, Russia and North Korea, China, under supreme leader Xi Jinping, could very well continue to increase the intensity of confrontations with the Philippines in the disputed South China Sea.

Should Chinese ships resort to live fire instead of merely relying on water cannons, the U.S. has cautioned that Beijing could face “serious blowback”. 

In a Financial Times (FT) in April report, one U.S. official said “China is underestimating the potential for escalation. We’ve tried to make that clear in a series of conversations . . . that our mutual defense treaty covers Philippine sailors and ships and by extension . . . the Sierra Madre.” The official added that “China needs to examine its tactics or risk some serious blowback.”

Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the German Marshall Fund, told the FT that the “greatest risk of a direct U.S.-China military confrontation today is at Second Thomas Shoal”. 

“If Beijing directly attacks Philippine ships or armed forces, Washington would be compelled to respond,” Glaser said. “A major political crisis between the U.S. and China would ensue, and, at worst, a wider military conflict.”

Jose Manuel Romualdez, Philippine ambassador to the U.S., also told the FT that both countries hoped that the aforementioned 1951 treaty would never have to be invoked, but declared that “we will not hesitate to do so” if necessary. 

Image credit: iStock/StudioM1

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