China’s Relationship With Philippines Sours

In the wake of recent confrontations in the South China Sea, China’s senior diplomat Wang Yi has cautioned the Philippines to exercise extreme care. The United States and other nations have strongly denounced the risky maneuvers carried out by Chinese coast guard vessels to obstruct Philippine supply boats around the disputed Spratly Islands. These disputed territories are all located inside the exclusive fishing zone of the Philippines. On both December 9 and 10, sizeable Chinese patrol ships clashed with smaller Philippine boats carrying humanitarian supplies near Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing controls, and Second Thomas Shoal, which Manila controls. During the standoffs, the Chinese ships also used water cannons and unidentified sonic weapons.

Meanwhile, China has leveled accusations of territorial incursion against the Philippines. A deterioration in relations has occurred at the same time that Manila is taking steps to strengthen military ties with Japan and the US, its former colonial power and defense partner of seven decades. Wang’s comments have the potential to escalate an already long-simmering conflict between the Philippines and China over the latter’s alleged efforts to block the former from using its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to acquire fossil fuels and fishery resources. The stakes would be far higher if the situation escalated into an armed conflict since the US is obligated to protect the Philippines from any assault, even in the South China Sea, according to a 1951 pact.

Among the many South China Sea claimants, the Philippines under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. stands out for its willingness to confront its larger neighbor, Vietnam, which asserts its “historical right” to the 250 islands, reefs, banks, and atolls in the region, claiming as its own more than 90% of the resource-rich waters.

A decades-old Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines requires the US to act in the event of an “armed assault,” which might occur anywhere in the world, including the South China Sea and is a source of support for Manila.