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Second Thomas Shoal Crisis: A Brewing Philippine-China Conflict?

Apr 30, 2024

“We seek no conflict with any nation, more so nations that purport and claim to be our friends but we will not be cowed into silence, submission, or subservience. Filipinos do not yield," declared Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr amid rising tensions in the South China Sea. He vowed a “countermeasure package that is proportionate, deliberate, and reasonable in the face of the open, unabating, and illegal, coercive, aggressive, and dangerous attacks," referring to the most dramatic tussle yet between the Philippines and China over the Second Thomas Shoal

In late-March, Chinese coast guard forces employed water cannons to disrupt a Philippine navy resupply mission to the contested shoal, where a grounded vessel, BRP Sierra Madre, serves as a de facto naval detachment for the Southeast Asian nation. Several Philippine naval servicemen were reportedly injured while at least two Philippine vessels were damaged during the incident, which has raised maritime tensions to new heights. 

Shortly after, the Philippines planned joint patrols with the U.S., Japan, and Australia in the South China Sea, while the Filipino president headed to the White House for a historic Japan-Philippine-U.S. (JAPHUS) trilateral summit. Crucially, Manila is also exploring a Visiting Forces Agreement-style pact with Tokyo, potentially paving the way for Japanese troop presence on Philippine soil as well as expanded drills and exchange of military technology, while contemplating granting Americans greater access to its northernmost bases close to Taiwan. The Philippine government also summoned the Chinese envoy in Manila to convey its “strongest protest." 

China has rejected any accusations of wrongdoing and, accordingly, warned its Southeast Asian counterpart against “playing with fire." The Chinese coast guard has maintained that its actions were professional and compliant with international standards, instead placing the blame on the Philippines for destabilizing the situation. Crucially, China has also accused the Philippines of violating a prior “Gentleman’s Agreement," under which the Southeast Asian nation was supposed to refrain from any major activities, namely fortification of its military footprint in the Second Thomas Shoal. 

Absent a proper recalibration by both sides, the Philippines and China could sleepwalk into dangerous confrontation in one of the most important waterways in the world. And since the Philippines has a mutual defense treaty with the United States, and ever-tighter security ties with other key powers such as Japan and Australia, there is a clear risk of a wider conflict in the Indo-Pacific should brinkmanship trump diplomacy. 

Clashing Narratives

The South China Sea disputes are by no means a novelty, since they extend way back into the 20th century. What’s worrying, however, is the hardening of rival claimants’ positions. China claims the Second Thomas Shoal as part of its ‘nine-dashed-line’ in the South China Sea under its doctrine of ‘historic rights.’ Invoking the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLO), and citing a 2016 arbitration tribunal award, the Philippines maintains that the contested shoal is a low-tide that falls within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). 

Since 1999, the Philippines has exercised de facto control over the shoal after grounding an ageing warship (BRP Sierra Madre) that would serve as its (temporary) naval detachment. Over the succeeding decades, however, there were no major efforts by the Philippines to build actual facilities over the contested shoal. In stark contrast, China and Vietnam began reclaiming and fortifying a whole host of nearby land features, particularly in the Spratly group of islands.  Since 2015, China has tried to challenge the Philippines by disrupting its resupply missions to the Second Thomas Shoal, thus forcing the Southeast Asian nation to repeatedly seek assistance from its ally, the U.S., which has deployed drones and warships near the contested shoal. Under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, however, the Southeast Asian nation sought an accommodation with the Asian superpower in order to avoid conflict and boost bilateral economic relations. Crucially, Duterte downgraded defense ties with Washington while negotiating joint development agreements with Beijing in the disputed waters. 

According to China, however, the former Filipino president also made a non-binding “Gentleman’s Agreement” over the Second Thomas Shoal, under which Manila allegedly agreed to refrain from any effort to reinforce its military presence on the shoal. This claim was corroborated by a former Duterte spokesman. But various Philippine authorities, including another former Duterte spokesman, have vigorously denied such a deal ever took place. On its part, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs lambasted the divulgence of any “sensitive details” from confidential negotiations, but maintained that it rejected any proposal that was “deemed as acquiescence or recognition of China’s control and administration over the [Second Thomas] Shoal as China’s territory” or any that “did not reflect our interests, especially on issues such as the South China Sea.” 

A Way Out of Impasse

The escalating tensions, however, have sparked a major debate in the Philippines. Interestingly, no less than Senator Imee Marcos, the sister of the incumbent and chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee, has partly blamed her brother for contributing to the ongoing crisis. “China’s doubt is because they don’t trust us, EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) says that we are suddenly too pro-American, U-turn Marcos administration after Duterte, it’s getting heated,” said the outspoken senator, referring to President Marcos Jr.’s decision to expand defense cooperation with the U.S. and traditional allies in the past year.  “Instead of being able to safely send water, what happened is that food is not being sent now, because their doubt is construction materials cement and the enlargement and permanence of the BRP Sierra Madre is what the Philippines is doing,” she added, accusing the Philippine government of escalating tensions by seeking to militarily fortify its grounded vessel over the contested shoal. 

Her brother, however, seems to be considering the counsel of more hawkish factions, who have called for doubling down on defense ties with traditional allies in order to keep China’s maritime assertiveness in check. Philippine authorities have publicly confirmed their plans to fortify the heavily dilapidated BRP Sierra Madre, which has been giving into the elements in past years. But the Marcos Jr. administration maintains that it’s a necessary move to sustain the country’s presence over the shoal as a matter of national interest. Moreover, the Philippines is also stepping up its military cooperation with traditional allies. Aside from planned joint patrols in the South China Sea, it’s exploring the possibility of granting Japanese troops rotational access to Philippine bases as well as allowing the Pentagon to expand its military footprint in northernmost provinces near Taiwan. 

Concerned by potential encirclement, China has warned the Philippines against “playing with fire." The ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, therefore, are likely an upshot of Beijing’s broader concerns with the direction of Philippine foreign policy. But this is also an opportunity for high-stakes diplomacy, namely the need for both sides to recalibrate their position lest they sleepwalk into armed collision in the disputed waters. 

As part of a de-escalation arrangement, the Philippines could fully reconsider granting Americans expansive access to prized facilities near Taiwan’s shores. Not to mention, revisiting any plans to host Japanese troops could also prove politically controversial both in Tokyo and in Manila, given the Northeast Asian nation’s dark history during World War II. While the Philippines should defend its legitimate sovereign rights, it can’t heedlessly ignore Beijing’s broader strategic sensitives. 

In exchange, China should also refrain from using aggressive actions in the South China Sea, which only reinforces the sense of insecurity of much weaker and smaller claimant states such as the Philippines. Ultimately, China should accept that the Philippines won’t be a pushover, especially after the departure of the idiosyncratic Duterte presidency, which failed to secure any lasting compromise in the disputed waters. A diplomatic resolution will be a tall order, but it’s the best option for all concerned parties. 

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