MS Risk Blog

Tensions Rise Between China and the Philippines

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On 21 March,  220 Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels moored at Whitsun Reef to shelter from heavy seas. The Philippines government took this as a sign of aggression from their northern neighbours and suggested that their decision to dock at the reef was politically motivated. This in turn sparked a number of retaliatory measures, including regular overflights by the Philippine Air Force, a rebuke from the U.S. National Security Advisor, and both the Philippine and U.S. navies moving parts of their fleet into the area.

Dispute over island chains in the South China Sea have been going on for around forty years. The main interested parties are China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. All parties have, at some point, made claims over various different islands in the South China Sea, but the most disputed areas are the Paracel and Spratly islands. The Spratly island chain, which includes the Whitsun Reef, is located to the west of the Philippines, broadly between it and Vietnam. There are over 100 islands, or reefs, occupied by all six of the nations mentioned above.

Over the last five years, China have begun pushing their claim for various islands and building on islands that they feel are theirs. This has led to various different confrontations and issues within ASEAN and with China.

In 2021 it appears China is increasing pressure on the ASEAN countries with regard to the island chains. Since Joe Biden took over the US Presidency China appears to be testing how far the US is willing to go to protect its allies in the region. Something that has also been seen further north in Taiwan.

It seems likely that this will continue throughout 2021, and in future years, but it is curiously divorced from other policies, a clear example being their vaccine diplomacy. One day after the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs suggested China “get the f— out” of their waters, President Duterte publicly took his first does of the Sinovac COVID 19 vaccination.

This shows the delicate path many ASEAN nations are trying to tread with China. Internal political pressure is often highly anti-China, especially in the highly nationalist Vietnam. Local governments are also clearly aware of the mismatch between their own forces and China’s if a conflict was to occur. On top of this, there are also the various ‘belt and road’ style financial incentives tying the countries together with China being the Philippine’s largest economic partner.

It is highly likely that China will continue to increase pressure on the various countries with claims to the Paracel and Spratly islands unless something significant changes with the way countries respond to Chinese aggression in the region. Currently there is no unified ASEAN response, as the ASEAN countries are also competing against each other and they all have different relationships with China. ASEAN countries are likely to continue to deal with China on an individual basis, based on their own domestic agendas, which may present opportunities for China to play the member states off against each other.

It also remains to be seen how far the US is willing to go to defend its allies beyond diplomatic rhetoric. If conflict does break out between China and ASEAN, or Taiwan, they US response will be key. Several ASEAN countries are attempting to grow their relationship with the US in an attempt to hedge against China, but if conflict does break out and the US does not intervene, the prospects for ASEAN will appear much bleaker.