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Second Thomas Shoal: The Next Crisis in the South China Sea?

Sep 22, 2023

“We are not on a war footing. What we are simply doing is trying to actually protect our sovereignty in our EEZ [exclusive economic zone] through diplomatic and peaceful means,” declared Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo during a high-stakes meeting with Filipino lawmakers in mid-August. The Philippine diplomatic chief was referring to the latest round of tensions in the South China Sea following Chinese Coast Guard’s deployment of water cannons to block a resupply mission by Philippine forces to the contested Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.

Since 1999, a small detachment of Filipino troops have precariously occupied the shoal atop a deliberately-grounded vessel, BRP Sierra Madre, in order to assert the Philippines’ claim in the area. China has accused the Philippines of seeking to establish permanent structures in the area and has claimed that past Filipino leaders have promised to withdraw the grounded, rusty ship. But the Philippine foreign affairs secretary dismissed such claims as baseless “unless we can get a clearer indication of such an agreement, we just have to assume there is no such agreement that exists.”

Earlier, Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. also insisted that “I’m not aware of any such arrangement or agreement that the Philippines will remove from its own territory its ship…And let me go further, if there does exist such an agreement, I rescind that agreement now.”  Buoyed by expanding defense ties with the West, the Philippines has not only rejected China’s call for potential compromise, but is now also contemplating more drastic moves to reinforce its position in the contested areas.

The Philippine Coast Guard has suspended its ‘hotline’ with its Chinese counterparts. Meanwhile, prominent Filipino statesman have called for not only establishing permanent structures in disputed areas, but also potentially placing Philippine-occupied islands in the area under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States. It remains to be seen what the Marcos Jr. administration will do next amid growing public pressure at home. In absence of careful diplomacy, however, the Philippines and China may sleepwalk into unwanted clashes in the contested areas. A major crisis in the South China Sea may well be on the horizon. 

False Starts 

To be clear, tensions in the South China Sea are nothing new. Over the past decade alone, the Second Thomas Shoal has repeatedly been a site of diplomatic tensions between the Philippines and China. What’s worrying, however, is diminishing confidence in a diplomatic breakthrough over the disputed waters. 

In terms of regional diplomacy, the decades-long negotiations over a legally-binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea are yet to bear fruit. This has only embittered countless policy-makers in Manila, who believe that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is either ineffectual or compromised due to its profound linkages with a powerful China. 

For Filipino leaders, the regional organization hardly even mentioned, never mind support, their hard-fought arbitration case at The Hague, which sought to leverage prevailing international law to settle maritime disputes. 

Worse, China-dependent member nations even tried toblock the discussion of the maritime disputes. The de-prioritization of the South China Sea disputes reached its apogee during Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2017, when Manila itself effectively tried to set aside any serious discussion of the issue amid warming ties with Beijing. 

Things haven’t been looking any more promising in terms of bilateral diplomacy. Throughout the past two decades, practically all Filipino presidents tried to pursue stable and fruitful relations with China. The pioneer was Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010), who advocated for a  ‘golden era’ of comprehensive strategic partnership with Beijing in order to expand bilateral investment relations as well as reduce her dependence on American patronage. 

Bilateral diplomacy reached new heights, however, under President Rodrigo Duterte, who saw China as a crucial development partner. Accordingly, the Beijing-friendly Filipino president not only downplayed the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, but also actively blocked deepening security cooperation with traditional Western allies. 

Most notably, he refused to allow the Pentagon to preposition weapons systems in Philippine bases under EDCA, while threatening to nix Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) amid growing disagreements on human rights and democracy issues. But while the 2012 Scarborough Shoal crisis pushed Aquino towards a more confrontational stance in the South China Sea, the  Reed Bank crisis in 2019 undermine Duterte’s pivot to China. In both cases, incidents in the disputed waters undercut public trust in China and galvanized Philippine public pressure on the incumbent presidents.

Dangerous Escalation 

In fairness, Marcos Jr, upon assuming power, tried to pursue optimal ties with Beijing. Early on, he told China’s leaders that he is committed to taking bilateral ties to “to a higher gear”  in order to achieve a ‘new golden era’ of Philippine-China relations. But his state visit to Beijing earlier this year fell short of meeting his expectations, given the dearth of any tangible concessions on either the South China Sea disputes or unfulfilled infrastructure investment pledges from the past. 

However, his subsequent decision to greenlight expansive military cooperation with Washington, under an expanded EDCA torpedoed the positive momentum in bilateral diplomacy with China. In response to new tensions in the South China Sea, Marcos Jr. further upgraded mutual defense guidelines with the Pentagon during his travel to Washington, DC, in May.  

Nevertheless, Marcos Jr. repeatedly tried to reassure the Asian powerhouse that expanded defense ties with the US won’t be aimed at China. He insisted that the Philippines was moving in a purely defensive direction. Crucially, Marcos Jr. also tried to convince allies in the Philippine Senate to water-down a resolution, which called on the Philippine government to take its disputes with China to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). 

Former president Rodrigo Duterte’s attempt at mediation following his visit to Beijing last month was undermined by the latest incident in the Second Thomas Shoal. China has tried to downplay the situation by emphasizing that it opposes new construction activities rather than humanitarian resupply of Filipino troops in the contested area. 

“China has repeatedly expressed its willingness to resolve differences with the Philippines through bilateral dialogues. We hope that the Philippines side will abide by the existing consensus and cherish the hard won situation in our bilateral relations,” said a top Chinese official in Manila, calling on the Marcos Jr. administration to meet Beijing “halfway and find an effective way of managing the situation on the sea through diplomatic consultations.”

He also reiterated China’s claim that in the past Manila had promised to withdraw its grounded vessels, since “The Philippine side also made explicit commitments to do so [and the that the] representations were put on record and well documented,” without providing further details.

Under growing public pressure, however, Philippine political elites have upped the ante by calling on the Marcos Jr. administration to start fortifying Philippine position on the ground, building new facilities in the Second Thomas Shoal, and double down on security cooperation with allies. In particular, prominent Filipino figures have called on the government to consider joint patrols and resupply missions with the U.S.

Some have even gone so far as suggesting that it’s time for Manila to place some of its occupied islands in the area, particularly Thitu Island in the Spratlys, under EDCA sites, effectively bringing U.S. soldiers into the contested waters.

Although the Marcos administration will likely shun such radical proposals, since even the U.S. might have second thoughts about directly assisting Philippine control over contested features, many in Manila are hoping that stronger military ties with allies would enhance the country’s deterrence capability in the South China Sea. What’s clear is the a moment of reckoning is fast approaching in the hotly-disputed waters. 

Although not in a mood to provoke China, Marcos Jr. will have to respond to growing domestic pressure to strengthen the Philippine position in the South China Sea. In absence of careful and sophisticated diplomacy, however, both sides could find themselves in a precarious situation in the near future, with brewing brinkmanship over the Second Thomas Shoal risking armed clashes altogether. 

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