OPINION | How China sees its conflict with the Philippines

The Philippine Navy corvette BRP Conrado Yap underway during the joint Philippine-US Exercise Balikatan 2023 (Photo: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Andre T. Richard)

Tensions are high again in the South China Sea. While Beijing attempts to tighten its grip on the region with a new ten-dash line, a multi-billion dollar military modernisation drive is underway in the Philippines.

Manila’s resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre warship, deliberately grounded in 1999 at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal and now serving as a Filipino outpost, is at the eye of the storm. According to Chinese media reports, Manila’s supply and coast guard ships were recently caught “trespassing” in the region, marking the third such event in the past five weeks.

This follows an incident last month in which China’s coast guard water-cannoned a Philippine military supply boat. Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs justified the response as “safeguarding sovereignty in accordance with law” and criticised Manila for “ignoring China’s goodwill and sincerity” by not removing the beached Sierra Madre despite repeated promises to do so over the past 24 years.

“Another commentary warned the leadership in Manila that Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra were ‘not simply supporting the Philippines’ but intended to use it as ‘cannon fodder’ in the larger scheme of containing China.”

Recent commentary published in Chinese website Sohu criticised former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s condemnation of the ten-dash line and his claim that Manila “wouldn’t resist a fight” for its maritime rights. Analysts in China view such rhetoric as Manila’s way of masking internal dissent against the current Marcos regime’s pro-US policy line and a failure to cater to the needs of the people. Manila has further aggravated Beijing by describing the danger of conflict in the Taiwan Strait as a “major security concern” in its newly published National Security Policy.

However, China views the United States as the main instigator of trouble in the South China Sea. National broadcaster CCTV described the recent maritime incidents as “excuses to normalise” US military presence in the region. China Daily published a cartoon criticising Washington for reducing the Philippines to a “hatchet man” and using the country to attack China from afar.

Another commentary in Sohu warned the leadership in Manila that Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra were “not simply supporting the Philippines” but intended to use it as “cannon fodder” in the larger scheme of containing China. Also under attack was the 2016 arbitration that rejected Chinese sovereign claims in the South China Sea. A commentary published in Chinese media website CRI Online described the arbitration as a piece of “waste paper” that will never become the “golden rule” for international maritime laws.

Many analysts believe that Manila’s pronouncements about confrontation are “gestures” rather than real attempts to challenge China, mostly because the geopolitical and economic costs of doing so would be too grave for the Philippines. Beijing remains Manila’s top trade partner and import supplier.

“Beijing must realise that its increasing bellicosity drives a wedge between itself and nations in the region.”

The Philippines’ decision to skip last month’s joint military exercise with the United States, Australia. and Japan in the South China Sea is seen as a way of avoiding conflict with China. Manila’s National Defence Secretary Gilbert Teodoro’s refusal to cooperate with Taiwan on security issues has similarly been viewed as the country’s continued adherence to the One-China policy. Despite his harsh remarks on Beijing, some Chinese international relations experts are optimistic about the appointment of Teodoro Locsin as Manila’s Special Envoy to China as he has not only favoured cooperation with Beijing but been critical of the West. His appointment is thus read as Manila’s attempt to stabilise ties with Beijing. However, others are clearly disappointed with the choice.

On balance, Manila’s new security policy is seen not as an immediate response to recent maritime confrontations but as part of a broader trend defined by closer engagements with the United States, which considers Manila an important actor under its 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy. Two very different commentaries on Chinese website NetEase illustrate how Beijing might view the situation. One speculates the possibility of Washington evoking its 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty with the Philippines and notes that if a war does break out, Washington, which has little to gain, is unlikely to “exert its full force” in Manila’s aid.

It stresses that America’s economic woes limit its ability to wage a war and despite “hating China and Russia to the bones”, Washington is unlikely to take military action over fears of the conflict escalating into a nuclear war. The other commentary compares the current situation between Beijing and Manila to that of Russia and Ukraine and argues that China must act very cautiously so as to prevent a “serious military crisis.”

Though a military confrontation is highly unlikely, peace remains elusive as ASEAN stands divided and individual nations are too weak to negotiate with China. Beijing must realise that its increasing bellicosity drives a wedge between itself and nations in the region. As for Manila, the solution rests in strengthening regional organisations such as ASEAN and furthering multilateral cooperation with other claimant nations to build concrete conditions for peaceful dialogue.

This story originally appeared on The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Cherry Hitkari

Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate student of East Asian Studies at University of Delhi, India.