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Chinese-Philippine Collisions Bring Attention Back to the South China Sea

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Twin collisions in the South China Sea are testing Philippine and U.S. resolve toward Chinese gray-zone tactics in the disputed maritime region, but absent more escalatory measures, the United States remains unlikely to directly intervene militarily. 

On Oct. 22, two collisions took place near the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea between Chinese and Philippine vessels within the latter's exclusive economic zone. First, a Chinese coast guard vessel collided with a Philippine transport ship; two hours later, a Chinese maritime militia vessel collided with a Philippine coast guard ship.

Though the collisions caused no casualties, the Philippine defense secretary said during an Oct. 23 press conference that the vessels were ''intentionally hit'' and authorities are deeming it the most serious Chinese attempt yet to block the Philippines' monthly resupply mission to the shoal. The Philippines summoned the Chinese ambassador, and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ordered a probe to investigate the incident.

The United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia condemned China's ''dangerous maneuvers'' and cited the 2016 arbitral ruling granting the maritime space to the Philippines. Beijing likewise filed a diplomatic complaint that contested Manila's version of events, arguing that the Philippine vessels were trespassing in Chinese waters.

  • The Philippines conducts monthly resupply missions to the shoal, where the Sierra Madre, a World War II-era vessel intentionally grounded in 1999, serves as a makeshift base for a dozen marines. On Oct. 23, China again called for the Philippines to remove the vessel, a demand it has made repeatedly.

  • In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, determining that China's ''nine-dash line'' claim encompassing much of the South China Sea, including disputed areas with the Philippines, has no legal basis. Beijing does not accept the ruling.

Metis Insights: Taiwan Strait


The incident is the latest in a string of increasingly frequent and confrontational Chinese actions aimed at probing the U.S.-Philippine alliance. But despite U.S. attention focused on other global conflicts, its Indo-Pacific forces remain in theater, implying normal U.S. readiness in the region.

The Oct. 22 collisions straddle the line of U.S. defense commitments to the Philippines under the two countries' Mutual Defense Treaty, which obligates the United States to come to the Philippines' defense in the event of an ''armed attack'' on Philippine forces or assets. China is attempting to demonstrate to the Philippines that the United States is not a reliable defense partner as these incidents intensify without further involvement by the U.S. military. As such, the latest incident continues a trend that has slowly escalated in recent months where China and the Philippines have had tit-for-tat exchanges, such as laying buoys to block off the other.

n this respect, the timing of the Oct. 2022 collisions is unlikely to be a reaction to what some in Beijing may perceive as U.S. ''distractions'' in other regions — namely, Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine and, more recently, the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza. Though U.S. attention on the Indo-Pacific region has seemingly taken a back seat to other global crises in recent weeks, the U.S. military has yet to divert assets of its Indo-Pacific Command to other theaters, which implies the events in Ukraine and the Middle East have not yet significantly impacted U.S. military readiness in the Indo-Pacific. 

  • U.S. military assistance to the Philippines in its resupply missions has been primarily focused on providing a support role with surveillance aircraft. Manila and Washington have been discussing joint patrols of the disputed waters since at least May, but have yet to implement them.

China, the Philippines and the United States will try to avoid a significant escalation that could cross the ''armed attack'' threshold for U.S. military intervention, but both Beijing and Manila have options to increase the aggressiveness of their maritime actions that will leave the door open to future crises.

Beijing, Manila and Washington all have reasons to keep maritime disputes below the threshold of direct confrontation. China does not want the U.S. military to become even more active in its near-abroad, nor does it want to push more regional states closer to U.S. defense pacts. The Philippines, for its part, is unprepared for the prospect of kinetic conflict with China's much larger navy and does not want to unnecessarily force the hand of the United States. Meanwhile, the United States is hesitant to establish a clear precedent for its direct military involvement in territorial disputes, which could not only stretch U.S. forces thin but also in some cases pit Washignton's regional allies and partners against one another.

To this end, China's gray-zone tactics in the South China Sea appear calibrated to not cross the threshold of ''armed attacks'' that would prompt the United States to come to the Philippines' defense per the two countries' treaty, as neither Manila nor Washington has yet articulated that this threshold has been crossed. That said, China has options to further intensify the dispute, which would likely be necessary before the United States intervenes. These include a full naval blockade of Philippine supply routes or around disputed islets and features; boarding Philippine vessels and detaining their crews; again using water cannons (which next time could seriously injure or kill a sailor); and firing live rounds, either as a warning or with the intent to hit a target (though the latter would be far more escalatory), among other possibilities.

Philippine actions also present an escalation risk. In one of the Oct. 22 collisions, it was a Philippine vessel that crossed the bow of a Chinese vessel, leading to the collision. The Philippines has been building more robust defense relationships with the United States, Japan, Australia and India, making it more assertive, meaning the Philippines will not be backing down in the near term. But in the interest of not alienating Washington, Manila is unlikely to resort to more provocative methods, such as the use of water cannons, unless it can credibly claim such actions are a proportional response to Chinese provocation. This will leave the door open to future crises, whether deliberate or the result of miscalculation, with the potential to draw the Philippines and the United States into an armed confrontation with China — a risk that increases with each successive incident in the South China Sea.

  • Prior instances of borderline ''armed attacks'' by China on the Philippines include an incident in February when Chinese forces shined a military-grade laser at Philippine sailors, causing temporary blindness, as well as an August incident in which Chinese vessels fired water cannons at much smaller Philippine coast guard vessels. Both instances occurred during resupply missions to the Second Thomas Shoal.

  • In recent months, China has taken additional actions against the Philippines in the disputed area, including laying underwater barriers to prevent Philippine fishers from entering their conventional fishing grounds near the Scarborough Shoal and cutting across the bow of a Philippine transport vessel around Thitu Island. 

  • Territorial disputes between U.S. allies and partners include the Liancourt Rocks dispute between Japan and South Korea in the Sea of Japan. In the South China Sea, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam (all U.S. allies or partners), as well as China, lay claim to Taiwan-administered Taiping Island in the Spratly Islands; Vietnam-administered Namyit Island and Pearson Reef, also in the Spratly Islands, are likewise claimed by the other three parties.

Source: Worldview