Stepped up naval altercations between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea — and repeated U.S. pledges to defend Manila — are exposing the growing risk of military conflict in the Indo-Pacific, despite growing efforts between Washington and Beijing to defuse these tensions.
The latest standoff occurred on Saturday in the Spratly Islands chain west of the Philippines, where Manila’s forces attempted to resupply a military facility. China’s Coast Guard, along with irregular Chinese naval vessels, disrupted the operation using both water cannons and blocking maneuvers, according to Philippine and U.S. officials.
It was the second time in recent months that Beijing and Manila clashed over this territory, called the Second Thomas Shoal. In February, China’s Coast Guard used a “military-grade laser” to try and disrupt a Philippine resupply there.
The Second Thomas Shoal sits 120 kilometers to the west of the island of Palawan, where the U.S. and Philippine militaries are jointly developing four new military bases that could be used in any American conflict with China over Taiwan. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Palawan in November in a sign of the increased strategic importance Washington places on the island, as well as the Philippines overall.
The Biden administration on Saturday stressed to Beijing that the U.S. is committed to defending all Philippine naval vessels and territory under the countries’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. The State Department also accused Beijing of violating international law, as an international tribunal ruled in 2016 that Beijing had no legal claim to these islands.
“The United States reaffirms an armed attack on Philippine public vessels, aircraft, and armed forces — including those of its Coast Guard in the South China Sea — would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments,” the State Department said in a statement released on Saturday.
The Philippines is just one in an emerging ring of hot spots in Asia and the Pacific that could embroil the U.S. and China in conflict, either deliberately or through miscalculations. And this threat is only intensifying as China and Russia have begun conducting joint-military training exercises in strategic waterways in the region in recent months.
Last week, the Pentagon’s Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command tracked a Russian and Chinese naval patrol that operated off the coast of Alaska. The joint force had started in East Asia the week before and crossed the Pacific towards American territory. Pentagon leaders said such cooperation between Beijing and Moscow has increased since the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine last year. South Korean and Japanese militaries have scrambled patrol boats in recent months in response to Chinese and Russian operations off their coasts.
But these tensions are reverberating far into the western Pacific as the U.S. and China compete for influence there. Leaders of countries including Palau, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea are seeking greater military backing against what they see are growing Chinese naval operations in their waters. But other countries, such as the Solomon Islands, have moved to secure defense commitments from Beijing.
Meanwhile, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has reinvigorated Manila’s military alliance with Washington since taking office last year, including visiting the White House on an official visit in May. His predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, drifted toward Beijing during much of his six-year tenure and questioned the continued utility of the U.S.-Philippines defense pact.
The View From Beijing
Beijing has cast its military training with Russia as defensive. On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry blasted American criticism of its naval operation off the Philippines and claimed to have been guarding Chinese territory.
“The State Department’s statement, in disregard of the facts, attacked China’s legitimate and lawful actions at sea aimed at safeguarding its rights and enforcing the law,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.