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  • Writer's pictureIan Murphy

Can China-Philippines Tensions Lead to Regional Conflict?

On October 22, 2023, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel collided with a Philippine supply boat during a resupply mission to the Philippine outpost on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands. The collision occurred when the Chinese vessel attempted to block the Philippine boat from proceeding. A Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel was also bumped by a Chinese Maritime Militia vessel during the mission. Although there were no injuries, this collision is an escalation of tensions between China and the Philippines, which could escalate a maritime dispute into a regional conflict.  

Conflict in the West Philippine Sea

The conflict in the West Philippine Sea is a years-long territorial dispute between China and the Philippines over the Spratly Islands and other features in the South China Sea. China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, including parts of the exclusive economic zones of neighboring countries, including the Philippines. The Philippines claims sovereignty over the Second Thomas Shoal and other features in the Spratly Islands. The conflict is about more than just territory. It is also about resources, navigation rights, and national security. The South China Sea is a rich fishing ground and is believed to contain significant oil and gas reserves. The sea is also a major shipping route for international trade.

China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea has alarmed its neighbors, including the Philippines. China has built artificial islands on disputed features in the Spratly Islands and has deployed military forces to the area. The Philippines has accused China of violating its sovereignty and has called for a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

Recognizing that the conflict in the West Philippine Sea has the potential to destabilize the region and lead to conflict, the Philippines brought its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. It was ruled in 2016 that China’s nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea was invalid under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. China has consistently refused to recognize the ruling and will only engage with the Philippines bilaterally on the issue. 

Although The Hague’s ruling is not binding on China, the Philippines recognizes the ruling and uses it to support its claims in the South China Sea. China has continued to build artificial islands and deploy military forces in the region, which has led to environmental destructionoverfishing, and military tensions. This has led to several clashes between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea since the Hague’s 2016 ruling.

  • 2017, a Chinese warship collided with a Philippine fishing boat near Reed Bank. The Philippine boat sank, but all of its crew members were rescued.

  • 2018, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel rammed a Philippine fishing boat near Scarborough Shoal. The Philippine boat was abandoned by its crew, but was later salvaged by the Philippine Coast Guard.

  • 2019, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel blocked a Philippine resupply boat from reaching Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippine boat was forced to turn back.

  • 2020, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel fired water cannons at a Philippine Coast Guard vessel near Ayungin Shoal. The Philippine vessel was forced to retreat.

This recent collision between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea is different from previous incidents in a few ways. It is the most serious collision that has occurred in recent years, with damage to both the Philippine supply boat and the Chinese Coast Guard vessel, with an increased risk of casualties. The collision also occurred during a routine supply mission for the Philippines, suggesting that China is becoming more aggressive in an area controlled by the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea. This was also a highly publicized event in the Philippines. Journalists were filming the resupply mission when the collision occurred, which raised the public’s awareness of Chinese aggression in the region. 

Risk for Regional Conflict

The collision comes at a time of global conflict, where global militaries are on high alert. There is some evidence to suggest that countries may be more willing to start conflict when there is already a war in another part of the world. For example, a study by the Correlates of War project found that the risk of war increases by about 25% when there is a major war ongoing in another region. There are a number of possible explanations for this phenomenon. One possibility is that countries may be more willing to take risks when they believe that the international community is distracted by another conflict. Another possibility is that countries may be more likely to see opportunities to advance their own interests when other countries are preoccupied with other problems.

Notably, as a result of the Second World War, the U.S. military is designed to be able to fight in two regions of the world simultaneously. However, the war in Ukraine, conflict between Israel and Hamas, tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, and Russian threats against Armenia has led U.S. allies and partners to worry that the United States can not come to their aid if a new conflict breaks out. This could lead to two dangerous outcomes, either adversaries believe that the U.S. does not have the will or capacity to defend its allies and the adversary launches a military conflict, or the United States or other country responds with overwhelming force at the first sight of military provocation.  

The U.S. Response

The U.S. has responded to the collision in the West Philippine Sea by condemning China’s actions and pledging continued support to the Philippines. The U.S. State Department commented on the collision, stating that it was “dangerous and unlawful,” and that China’s “provocative and unsafe behavior” in the South China Sea was a “threat to regional peace and stability.” The United States currently has a Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines, which means that an attack on either country would be considered an attack on both. 

This response does two things, which can stabilize the conflict before either side is able to escalate as mentioned before. Reaffirming its commitments to the Philippines prevents China from underestimating a US response to an escalation of conflict, and also prevents the Philippines from acting disproportionately out of fear. 

Despite conflict in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the U.S. is still able to support its allies in the Indo-Pacific. With the Philippines, the U.S. is providing reassurance in the form of diplomatic support, military training, and increasing its presence in the Philippines. This gives the Philippines the confidence that the U.S. will be there when conflict arises and also shows the region that it values peace and stability. 

This article was previously published on The News Lens International on October 30, 2023.


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