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U.S. Intrusions Will Roil Disputed Waters

Dec 21, 2023
  • Peng Nian

    Director of Research Centre for Asian Studies, China

On Dec. 4, the U.S. littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords entered the disputed waters surrounding Ren’ai Reef, a hot spot of recent China-Philippines tensions in the South China Sea.

This was the first time that a warship of the United States openly challenged China’s sovereignty in the area since the escalation of tensions between China and the Philippines in early 2023. By doing so, the U.S. sent a clear message to China that it has not abandoned its unwavering support for the Philippines, particularly in terms of military assistance, despite the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Russia-Ukraine war.

Although the U.S. is aware of the high risk of expanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the broader Middle East, and it can foresee Russia’s ultimate victory in the war with Ukraine if Western assistance is cut off, it has not shifted its focus away from the South China Sea. Instead, it has intensified its military exercises and deployments with allies and partners in the region to create friction between China and its neighbors without directly confronting Beijing.

Despite claiming to be the most reliable U.S. ally in the South China Sea, the Philippines fears that the U.S. might reduce or abandon its assistance because of the expansion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; therefore, Manila must provoke trouble in the region to continue receiving U.S. support.

The day before the U.S. entered the disputed waters around Ren’ai Reef, the Philippine Coast Guard claimed a significant increase in Chinese maritime militia vessels near the Niu’e Reef (Whitson Reef). In response, it deployed two warships to “patrol, challenge, and monitor” the Chinese vessels. Ironically, on Nov. 20, it was announced in the Philippines that more than 40 fishing boats would be sent with supplies to Ren’ai Reef.

Given that a large number of civilian vessels have entered the disputed waters of the South China Sea, this may potentially lead to collisions, or even confrontations, between the Coast Guard and fishing boats. The involvement of civilian vessels could be a significant trigger for clashes and should therefore be avoided by both China and the Philippines.

The Philippine Navy recently established a new monitoring station on its occupied Zhong’ye Island to improve surveillance of Chinese ships and aircraft. It is believed that the Philippines will share intelligence on Chinese Navy activities around Zhong’ye Island with the U.S. Navy through this station, ensuring America’s continued military support.

At the same time, the U.S. intends to deter China from changing the status quo by increasing military activities in the disputed waters. As discussed before, the U.S. has to fight on many fronts, including the Middle East and Russia, which could weaken its advantages in the maritime disputes. The U.S. worries that China might take this significant opportunity to advance its interests in the South China Sea, particularly by recovering Ren’ai Reef militarily.

In the near future, the U.S. will not only enhance its military presence there — not only to bolster its deterrence of China but to foster coordination and cooperation with allies and partners. The objective is to establish a U.S.-led alliance aimed at curbing China in the South China Sea.

On Nov. 27, following the conclusion of joint maritime exercises with the U.S. and Australia, Romeo Brawner Jr., the chief of staff of the Philippine armed forces, declared that the Philippines planned to conduct additional joint multilateral military exercises with other allies in the South China Sea in the future. He added that several countries were interested in staging maritime and aerial drills with the Philippine Navy in both bilateral and multilateral arrangements.

Soon after that, Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and his French counterpart, Minister Sebastien Lecornu agreed to initiate talks on the Visiting Forces Agreement on Dec. 2. France would be the fourth country, following the U.S., Australia and Japan, to get access to military facilities in the Philippines. 

Involving countries outside the region in South China Sea disputes would not only exacerbate and broaden the tension but also degrade China’s relations with Japan, Australia and France.

To conclude, U.S. involvement at Ren’ai Reef would escalate tensions in the South China Sea and undermine fragile U.S.-China relations. Tensions will only ease if U.S.-China relations substantially improve. Therefore, the top priority for both powers should be to continue their engagement with regard to mitigating confrontation. Both sides should maintain self-restraint even during maritime crises, carefully utilizing deterrence power and consolidating non-conflict measures.

Fortunately, we have seen positive trends in China-U.S. relations in recent months, such as the China-U.S. summit in San Francisco in November and the talks on resuming communication between the two armies in December. We hope both sides will take pragmatic steps to manage their competition to prevent preventing South China Sea tensions from escalating.

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