As US and European warships gathered in the eastern Mediterranean amid rising tensions around Israel last weekend, the carrier USS Ronald Reagan dropped anchor off Manila to quietly project the message that Washington would stand behind the Philippines in any conflict in the South China Sea.
Recent weeks have seen significant escalation in maritime disputes between China and the Philippines, particularly over Manila’s efforts to resupply a wrecked US-made landing craft on the Second Thomas Shoal, within the internationally recognised Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone but also claimed by China.
On Oct 22, Filipino officials accused a Chinese coastguard ship and accompanying vessel of ramming a Filipino coastguard ship and supply boat near the reef. There has been a string of incidents in recent months, including in August when a Chinese coastguard cutter was filmed blasting Filipino vessels with a water cannon — but the ramming incident was the first time Beijing had been accused of deliberately hitting a vessel of a foreign government.
Events on Second Thomas Shoal have not captured global headlines, but they bring with them their own growing risk of escalation and unanticipated war.
Within the Philippines and in Washington, some suspect Beijing is deliberately ramping up tension in the region while the United States has its focus on Europe and the Middle East, hoping to demonstrate the limits of US power as China intensifies its threats against neighbouring Taiwan.
It is a confrontation that could easily escalate. Last week, US officials reported that a Chinese J-11 fighter came within three metres of a US B-52 bomber operating over an unspecified area of the South China Sea, warning that its pilot came close to having a disastrous unintended collision.
Late October, following the ramming incident, also saw an unusually explicit series of US warnings — including from President Joe Biden — that any attack on Filipino vessels, aircraft or armed forces would trigger Washington’s 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty.
That statement provoked further Chinese anger, with officials in Beijing saying the United States had “no right” to get involved in South China Sea territorial disputes.
Beijing has appeared determined to make it as difficult as possible for the small detachment of Filipino marines to keep occupying the BRP Sierra Madre, once the landing ship USS Harnett County launched in 1944 and deliberately beached on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 to provide a base from which to assert the Filipino presence.
Filipino officials say the condition of the Sierra Madre is continuing to deteriorate, but that they remain determined to continue asserting their maritime rights when necessary.
In September, a Filipino naval diver was filmed cutting a Chinese underwater barrier — which appeared to be a simple rope linking several buoys — blocking Filipino fishing vessels from waters near Scarborough Shoal, another disputed reef.
In what appeared a sign of escalating confrontation, China on Monday accused a Filipino military vessel of “illegally” entering into waters near Scarborough Shoal, demanding the government in Manila ensure such activity ceased immediately.
The Philippines says its ships have the right to operate in the area, and appears keen to keep taking action to support that.
The low-tech face-off is, of course, part of a much wider confrontation. Beijing is determined to assert its sovereignty over the approximately 90% of the 3,500,000 square km South China Sea enclosed in its “nine-dashed line” which it says is supported by ancient maritime records, giving it access to potentially massive energy, fishing and undersea mineral reserves.
China reasserted those claims this week at the three-day Xiangshan military conference in Beijing attended by representatives of dozens of nations, at which senior Chinese officials again also restated their determination to assert control over self-ruled Taiwan.
The conference was attended by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who again stressed Moscow’s alliance with Beijing while both Russian and Chinese officials blamed the United States for rising global tensions.
But the conference also saw the announcement of renewed US-Chinese military dialogue, which was suspended last year following the visit of House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mr Biden have agreed to meet in coming weeks. While that might be a sign both wish to avoid accidental war, neither side is willing to show weakness in the South China Sea or elsewhere.
Beijing’s first domestically manufactured aircraft carrier, the Shandong, was reported in waters last week near Taiwan, which China views as a rogue province and has vowed to capture by force if needed. US officials say Mr Xi has ordered China’s military to be ready to do so by 2027 and that deterring that attack is now the top global priority for the Biden administration.
Until recently, most nearby neighbours including Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia showed only limited appetite for challenging Beijing on maritime claims or other issues. Previous Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte — facing widespread international criticism over his human rights record — particularly prioritised good China relations.
That began to change following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which ramped up already rising Asian concerns of similar acts by China.
That in turn prompted Mr Duterte’s government to announce it would offer Filipino bases to US forces in the event of a wider war.
Cooperation has intensified sharply with the election in June 2022 of President Ferdinand Marcos Junior, son of the former dictator of the same name ousted in a largely bloodless revolution in 1986. Supporters of Mr Duterte, perhaps unsurprisingly, have now reverted to a more pro-China position, warning the Marcos government is risking outright war.
In February, the Marcos government granted the United States access to four more military bases, bringing the total number of US military sites in the country to nine. Filipino officials say they include Luzon, the closest part of the Philippines to Taiwan, as well as Palawan near the disputed Spratly Islands.
Those locations could prove critical in any conflict over Taiwan, in which analysts expect the Chinese military to attempt to blockade the island and potentially use missiles, planes and drones to prevent the United States or any other ally from supporting the government in Taipei.
In the first half of October, US forces led joint exercises in the Philippines involving more than 1,800 personnel, including warships from Britain, Canada and Japan — likely giving the government in Manila reasonable confidence Washington and its allies will have its back should the current confrontation escalate.
That might give Beijing pause for thought — but equally, China’s leaders may conclude that by continuing to escalate regardless, they are also sending a broader message of determination that will lend credibility to their pressure on Taiwan.
Should they continue to pursue that course, 2024, and the years that follow, are likely to get progressively more dangerous for both the region and the world. Reuters
Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues.