Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 9 April 2024


China Plays Tense Game of ‘Russian Roulette’ With U.S. Ally

Source: Center for Strategic and International Studies

Policymakers worry the increasingly tense encounters could result in a grave incident, push Manila to invoke its mutual-defense treaty with the U.S. and spiral into a broader conflict. That is why the South China Sea will be high on the agenda when President Biden huddles in Washington this week with his counterparts from the Philippines and Japan for their first-ever three-way summit.

“It’s a really critical hot spot right now that could end up in a bad place,” Adm. John Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told a congressional committee last month, calling Chinese actions aggressive and dangerous.    

The mutual-defense treaty between Washington and Manila can be triggered by an armed Chinese attack on Philippine armed forces or public vessels, including its coast guard, in the South China Sea. Adm. Aquilino said that if a Filipino sailor or soldier were killed, Manila could invoke the treaty.


“That would put our policy decision makers in a place that would require really tough choices,” he said.

Late last month, after the two most recent encounters with Chinese ships, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.signaled that China had crossed a line. He said in a statement that he had approved “a response and countermeasure package” that he said was “proportionate, deliberate, and reasonable in the face of the open, unabating, and illegal, coercive, aggressive, and dangerous attacks” by China’s coast guard and maritime militia. 

He didn’t elaborate on the new measures, but said: “Filipinos do not yield.”

WSJ’s Feliz Solomon joined a resupply convoy to a remote Philippine outpost in the disputed South China Sea. The mission would end in one of the most significant confrontations between China and the Philippines in recent years. Photo: WSJ

The question the U.S. faces now is: How to get China to back off before someone gets badly hurt, by accident or otherwise, and brings the mutual-defense treaty into the picture. Washington has sought to demonstrate that—although it has a lot on its plate with Gaza and Ukraine—it is paying close attention to the South China Sea and has got its ally’s back. 

The underlying calculation is that while Beijing is willing to push and provoke the Philippines, which has a much weaker military than its own, it doesn’t want to get into a direct fight with the U.S.

The American and Philippine militaries have conducted joint patrols in the South China Sea since November. When the Philippine resupply convoy heads to Second Thomas Shoal every few weeks, a U.S. warship is usually present at a nearby reef—staying out of the fray but maintaining a presence that both the Philippines and China can see.


Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. met with President Biden at the White House last year. Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters

Other American allies in the region are also showing up. On Sunday, warships and aircraft from the U.S., Japan, Australia and the Philippines held naval exercises in the South China Sea. In Washington, the leaders of the U.S., Japan and the Philippines will meet on Thursday to announce security and economic initiatives, including more joint patrols.   

These groupings knit the Philippines more deeply into U.S. networks in the region. They are part of the Biden administration’s efforts to not only level-up the U.S.’s friendships one-on-one but also to bring its friends together more—sometimes in groups of three, sometimes four, to work together where they can to counter China. Some experts call it a latticework approach.


What is the best way to confront China’s ambitions in the South China Sea? Join the conversation below.

Japan is negotiating what is called a reciprocal access agreement with the Philippines, aimed at making it easier for the countries’ militaries to exercise together. “Issues relating to the South China Sea are directly connected to peace and stability of the region and they are of legitimate interest to the international community including Japan,” a Japanese defense official said.

China disagrees, and says the issues are for Beijing and Manila to resolve between them. It chafes at what it sees as U.S. interference in particular, and accuses the Philippines of pulling in forces from outside the region. It blames Manila for the confrontations at sea.  

Second Thomas Shoal lies within the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone, approximately 105 nautical miles from its shores. Upon it lies Manila’s unconventional outpost: a dilapidated World War-II era ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, that the Philippines grounded there 25 years ago to keep China from seizing the reef. Filipino marines live on the decrepit ship and every few weeks, Manila sends a resupply convoy of four ships to support them. 


A Chinese Coast Guard ship fired a water cannon at a Philippine resupply vessel in the South China Sea in March. Photo: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images
A photo provided by the Philippine military showed the damaged windshield of the Philippine resupply vessel in March. Photo: Armed Forces of the Philippines/Associated Press

Beijing says the Philippines is trying to transport construction materials to reinforce the Sierra Madre and permanently occupy Second Thomas Shoal.  

Elected nearly two years ago, Marcos has driven a rapid shift away from his predecessor’s pro-China orientation and doubled down on the U.S. alliance. His administration has honed a new template for responding to China’s gray zone tactics: first, by continuously showing up in the South China Sea, and second, by showing the world what it is like to be at the receiving end of those tactics.  

For months, the Philippines has sought to broadcast the confrontations to the world, putting out its own photos and videos and allowing journalists to join its resupply missions to Second Thomas Shoal. Those images—of small Philippine vessels surrounded by many and much larger Chinese ones, and of blasts of water slamming into Philippine boats—have helped Manila galvanize international support.


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