What is China doing in the Philippines?

The South China Sea is a tinderbox waiting to ignite.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics World

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In March, coastguard ships under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opened fire with water cannons on a wooden resupply vessel belonging to the Philippines. This caused the Unaizah May 4 to collide with a Chinese boat, resulting in injuries to three of the Filipino crew and heavy damage to the vessel itself.

This skirmish in the South China Sea may seem like a minor incident, but it is of huge geopolitical significance. What happens to the Philippines today gives us a hint of what could befall Taiwan tomorrow. Beijing’s threats towards Manila are part of an attempt to project power throughout Southeast Asia – and to send a message to America, Japan, South Korea and Australia not to push their luck there. They certainly give the lie to the CCP’s claim that it has no desire to upturn the current world order.

This particular incident took place by the Second Thomas Shoal, a small reef situated just 120 miles from the Philippines and a very long way from China. The Shoal is part of the Spratly Islands, some of the many islands in the South and East China Seas and in the Pacific that are being fought over by China, Japan and other regional powers.

The Philippines has claimed sovereignty over the Second Thomas Shoal ever since it dumped a rusting Second World War ship, the Sierra Madre, on it in 1999. Beijing, however, has never accepted Manila’s claims. It has consistently asserted its own sovereignty over the Shoal and the waters that surround it.

The incident will certainly come up on 11 April, when Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr is in Washington, DC at a three-way summit with Joe Biden and Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida. The trio will no doubt talk up the ‘ironclad’ military alliances between the US, Japan and the Philippines. As Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, recently put it, theirs is a partnership ‘built on deep historical ties of friendship, robust and growing economic relations, and… a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific’.

Not that the US or Japan have the Filipinos’ best interests at heart. Those ‘deep historical ties’ that Jean-Pierre talked about are knotted, to say the least. During the Philippine insurrection against America of 1899-1902, America slaughtered perhaps a million Filipinos. And Japan attacked the Philippines on 7 December 1941, the same day as it wreaked havoc at Pearl Harbor. Altogether, Filipinos have had a tough time of it. They have persistently been subject to the aggression of larger global and regional powers, from America to Japan and now China.

China’s quarrel with the Philippines goes beyond some sand, fish and a decaying Second World War hulk. It is part of the CCP’s commitment to the ‘Nine Dash Line’, a 20th-century declaration that claimed vast swathes of the ocean as Chinese property. As a result, China’s move on the Second Thomas Shoal will only exacerbate tensions between Beijing and the West.

It should be said that the Shoal contains no fossil fuels nor any other valuable natural resources. China will not gain any military advantage from seizing it, either. Beijing’s moves on the Shoal should be seen as part of a broader attempt to subject the Philippines to its will. Indeed, the CCP is now warning Manila to ‘stop provocations’ and not ‘escalate’ the dispute. Manila knows that $40 billion worth of trade with China is at stake. It also knows that Beijing could decide to apply sanctions against it.

The situation around the Second Thomas Shoal looks primed for escalation. The Filipino navy is certainly preparing for the worst-case scenario. In a warning to Manila not to invoke its 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty with Washington, the Chinese navy has launched high-intensity live-fire drills in the South China Sea.

Taiwan will certainly be watching closely. From now until 25 April, Taiwan is holding its own live-fire drills on the islands of Lieyu, Menghu and Houyu. These are outliers to the larger Taiwanese island of Kinmen, less than four miles off the Chinese mainland and already home to US Special Forces. Little wonder that on 27 March, the CCP upped its naval patrols west of the Taiwan Straits.

The Philippines deserves our solidarity just as much as Taiwan does. There is more than just a territorial dispute between Manila and Beijing at issue here. The very integrity and self-determination of the Philippines is at stake.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World


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