Dangerous manoeuvres: the Philippines and US-China competition

Chinese actions at sea intrude on Philippine economic interests

Following President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s four-day trip to Washington, it appears that relations between China and its maritime neighbour are entering a difficult period. The Philippines and Taiwan have each reported higher levels of Chinese air and maritime activity around their territories, with the Philippine Coast Guard complaining that Chinese ships had performed ‘dangerous manoeuvres’ near its vessels close to the Spratly Islands.

The apparent increase in China’s activity is associated with the archipelago’s efforts to advance its defence relationship with the US. In February, the Philippines and the US agreed to add another four locations in which the US can preposition supplies and rotate troops under the 2014 Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement. The two countries’ annual Balikatan exercises in April featured live fire on an enemy ship in the South China Sea for the first time.

The Philippines’ current appetite for defence co-operation with the US is a return to form for the country under Marcos, who was elected last year. His predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, had taken the opposite tack of suspending most co-operation with Washington in favour of better relations with Beijing. ‘Staying out of it’ has not been an option for Manila. Chinese actions at sea intrude on Philippine interests in the archipelago’s exclusive economic zone.

Compelling strategic potential

The Philippines is positioned between China and the US both politically and geographically. The archipelago forms the ‘tail’ of a chain of islands that follows the curve of the Asian landmass from Japan to Borneo. This chain holds strategic significance for China and the US; both countries have historically viewed the islands as a springboard for military influence in the region.

Until their closure in 1991, US bases in the Philippines – Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station –were among the largest in the world. The bases had important roles for US military action during the second world war and the American war in Vietnam. Following the US military’s departure from the Philippines, the US’ defence posture in Asia has been concentrated at the top of the island chain via its bases in Japan and South Korea.

Between the Korean peninsula and the Philippine island of Luzon lies Taiwan. Taiwan’s deep politico-cultural significance for China has not precluded it from seeking and obtaining assurances from Washington over its own security. Following then-Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in December, tensions between Beijing and Taipei have risen to arguably their highest since 1996. This point cannot have been lost on Filipino planners. Among the four additional EDCA sites identified by the Marcos and Joe Biden administrations, two are in the Philippines’ northern province of Cagayan, nearest to Taiwan.

Considerable operational constraints

Nevertheless, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo has taken care to repeat that the EDCA is not targeted at any third country and that its related activities will be limited to strengthening the Philippines’ own defence. After all, the Philippines has no commitments to Taiwan or to any ally other than the US. Unlike in the past, US military activities in the Philippines today fall fully under Philippine oversight.

More convincingly, the potential of ‘big picture’ Philippine-American co-operation is not in sync with operational reality. Despite having been signed nearly a decade ago, the EDCA has had a short runway for serious implementation. US-Philippine defence co-operation stalled for most of that period in connection with the Duterte administration’s (2016-22) scepticism of the alliance. By June 2022, construction had only completed at one warehouse on one site.

Diplomatic call and response

Amid souring US-China relations, the recent developments in the US-Philippines relationship stoke an outsized diplomatic reaction. Beyond the South China Sea, US-China relations are in a sensitive state due to frictions over the war in Ukraine, the mineral and technological trade and the status of Taiwan. Efforts to arrest that deterioration are largely beyond the Philippines’ reach.

Yet, out in the ocean, Philippine vessels are on the front line. There, Chinese and Philippine Coast Guard ships may find themselves in close and dangerous encounters meant to send a message of dissatisfaction to the opposing capital. Under these conditions, the risk of an accident that precipitates a crisis is difficult for anyone – the US, China or the Philippines – to control. In that event, these governments will need to be prepared for an intensive effort at de-escalation.

Angelica Mangahas is a PhD candidate at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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