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Whitsun Reef Standoff: Implications for the U.S.-Philippine-China triangle in the South China Sea

May 20, 2021

“I’m not so much interested now in fishing. I don’t think there’s enough fish to quarrel about,” declared Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte following a month-long standoff between Manila and Beijing over the disputed Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea. 

Eager to maintain friendly ties with China, the Filipino president downplayed the maritime spats and, accordingly, warned against escalating tensions, since “If we go there to assert our jurisdiction, it will be [a] bloody [confrontation with China].” 

Duterte’s personal intervention, including regular talks with Chinese diplomats in Manila, seemingly helped prevent a dangerous escalation in the South China Sea. Yet, the Whitsun Reef standoff will likely have major strategic implications, which will echo far beyond Duterte’s term in office. 

At the most fundamental level, the latest maritime showdown has strengthened the hands of China hawks in Manila and, accordingly, will likely push the Philippines back into America’s strategic orbit in the coming years. 

Rollercoaster Relationship 

Unfortunately, the Philippines and China are no stranger to maritime disputes. If anything, the Whitsun Reef standoff is the fourth major naval showdown between the two sides since the end of Cold War. 

Ironically, the Philippines and China largely avoided direct confrontation during much of the Cold War, despite the fact that they were perched on opposite sides of the raging conflicts between the Western and communist blocs. In fact, the Philippines, under the former President Ferdinand Marcos, was among the first pro-Western nations to normalize bilateral relations with Maoist China in the mid-1970s, astutely preempting as well as reinforcing the long détente between Washington and Beijing. 

The departure of U.S. troops from Philippines bases in the early-1990s, however, created a momentary power vacuum in East Asia. By 1995, the Philippines and China were at loggerheads over the Mischief Reef in the South China Sea, then a low-tide-elevation within the Philippines’ 200 nautical exclusive economic zone as well China’s ‘nine-dashed-line’. 

In response, then Philippine President Fidel Ramos, a West Point graduate and former Philippine general, launched a military modernization program, invited the Americans back under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and sought diplomatic assistance from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Crucially, however, throughout his term in office Ramos also directly engaged Beijing through his so-called “Karaoke diplomacy” with then Chinese President Jiang Zemin. 

When Joseph Estrada became the Philippine president, he largely adopted a strategy of neglect towards the South China Sea. During a national security council meeting on the Mischief Reef, the populist president reportedly “dozed throughout most of the meeting”, which, according to a top legislator in attendance, was “a political statement of sorts”, even as China fortified its position on the disputed land feature, which would eventually turn into a massive island hosting both civilian and military facilities following reclamation activities in recent years. 

On her part, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who would later become Duterte’s top foreign policy adviser, oversaw a “golden age” of diplomatic relations with China. Not only did she welcome massive Chinese infrastructure investments, but also oversaw a controversial joint exploration agreement, the so-called Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU), with Beijing and Hanoi to diffuse tensions in the South China Sea. 

History Repeats Itself 

Under her successor, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, the Southeast Asian country rolled back economic and strategic relations with China, and instead expanded defense ties with the U.S. It was during this period that the Philippines experienced its second major maritime standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. 

Following a months-long showdown between a Philippine frigate and Chinese coast guard forces over the shoal, both sides agreed to a mutual disengagement agreement. But when it became clear that the Philippines effectively lost control over the fisheries-rich shoal, which lies within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), Aquino launched an unprecedented arbitration case against China and, soon after, negotiated an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the U.S. The upshot was a virtual breakdown in Philippine-China relations. 

Once in power, however, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte radically reoriented Philippine foreign policy by pursuing warmer relations with China at the expense of the U.S. And similar to Arroyo, he welcomed large-scale Chinese investments to cement his foreign policy legacy. 

But three years into office, Duterte confronted his own major crisis in the South China Sea when a suspected Chinese militia vessel reportedly rammed a Filipino fishing boat in the energy-rich Reed Bank, provoking nationwide uproar and deepening anti-China sentiments in the Philippines. 

Determined to maintain robust ties with China, Duterte controversially downplayed the crisis as a "a little maritime accident" -- effectively echoing the position of Beijing, which similarly described the incident at the Reed Bank as “ an ordinary maritime traffic accident.” Throughout 2020, the Filipino president actively sought to repair bilateral ties by emphasizing China’s assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It wasn’t long, however, before the Philippines and China were once again clashing in the South China Sea. Beginning in late-March, Philippine naval and coast guard authorities accused China of deploying hundreds of maritime militia forces to ostensibly swarm and surround Philippine-claimed land features such as the Whitsun Reef and surrounding islets in the Spratly Islands. 

Beijing categorically dismissed those claims by maintaining these were ordinary fishing vessels roaming China’s “traditional fishing grounds”, which were supposedly stranded in the area due to unfavorable weather conditions. Top Philippine officials and foreign analysts, however, argued that these were instead an armada of People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) forces. 

Uncle Sam to the Rescue 

Soon, the Biden administration pitched in, with Washington emphasizing its mutual defense obligations to the Philippines and deploying multiple warships to put muscle behind its tough rhetoric. 

“An armed attack against the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” declared the U.S. State Department amid the rising tensions. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. deployed the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, the USS Mustin and USS John S. McCain guided-missile destroyers, as well as Virginia-class attack submarine USS Illinois to Western Pacific and China-adjacent waters in an indirect show of support for the Philippines. 

Within days, the Philippines and U.S. kicked off the 36th Balikatan Exercises (April 12-23), which saw the participation of close to 1,000 troops from both sides and featuring, among others, joint drills that focus on maritime security and enhancing military interoperability between the two allies. 

On its part, the Philippine defense establishment, which has maintained strong ties with Washington and remained skeptical of Duterte’s pivot to China, upped the ante by deploying fighter jets and naval patrols to the area. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, formerly a defense attaché in Washington, accused China of “utter disregard” for international law and “violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory.”  

Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin, a staunch advocate of traditional ties with Washington, warned China his side would be “firing off” diplomatic protests “every day until the last” Chinese vessel leaves the Whitsun Reef, and surrounding area. After weeks of tit-for-tat diplomacy, including a rare ‘word war’ between the Philippines and China, the crisis seems to have been largely diffused, with just few Chinese vessels reportedly left in the contested area. 

Yet, the latest maritime standoff between Philippines and China will have major long-term ramifications. In the short-run, it has strengthened the position of the Philippine defense establishment at the expense of China-friendly factions, led by Duterte. 

Both Secretaries Lorenzana and Locsin will likely push for greater security cooperation with the U.S., specifically focusing on maritime security cooperation in the South China Sea, as public skepticism towards the Filipino president’s China-friendly foreign policy deepens amid the latest spat in the contested waters. 

This is especially important, since Manila and Washington are currently negotiating the full restoration of the VFA -- a key defense deal that facilitates large-scale joint military exercises, and was previously nixed by Duterte amid human rights-related disagreements with Washington.In the coming months and years, meanwhile, the Whitsun Reef crisis will likely be leveraged by China hawks in the Philippines, as Duterte enters his twilight year in office and the Southeast Asian country elects a new president next year. Unsurprisingly, Asian geopolitics has another plot twist to contend with. 

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