China, Philippines Clash in South China Sea

On August 5, China Coast Guard ships reportedly water-cannoned and blocked Philippine vessels that were en route to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The Philippine vessels included two Philippine Coast Guard ships that were escorting vessels leased by the Philippine Navy.

The vessels were to deliver fuel and other supplies to the small number of troops aboard the BRP Sierra Madre. In 1999, Manila intentionally grounded the former warship at the Second Thomas Shoal, which falls within the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone, to buttress its territorial claims.

China’s actions prompted protests from Canada, the U.S., and Japan, among others, with some calling Beijing’s actions “destabilizing.”

Beijing vs. Washington-backed Manila

It’s unclear if China’s recent action will trigger the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). The MDT requires the U.S. to defend the Philippines if Philippine vessels come under attack. Washington, in condemning the incident, reaffirmed its obligations set out under the MDT.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., unlike his predecessor, has strengthened ties with the U.S. during his tenure and has vehemently denounced China’s claims in the disputed region. China’s decision to confront the Philippine vessels so publicly may have been influenced by Marcos Jr.'s U.S. tilt, according to experts.

Expanding naval ambitions as tensions escalate

China claims more than 90 per cent of the South China Sea — a claim that the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected in 2016. Beijing has ignored the ruling, opting instead to expand its control over the region. The latest confrontation, in addition to its concurrently held joint drills with Russia in the Aleutian Islands, has raised concerns regarding China’s naval expansion.

In early August, the U.S. deployed four warships in response to joint patrols by Beijing and Moscow, during which their naval fleets edged close to U.S. territory.