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  • Writer's pictureIan Murphy

Philippines Resists Chinese Coercion in the South China Sea with Defense Modernization and Alliances

Chinese actions in the South China Sea have recently pulled the Philippines’ commitment to security into question as Beijing seeks to assert its claims in the West Philippine Sea and put diplomatic pressure on Manila to make political concessions. In addition, China insists that former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made a secret agreement with China to keep the status quo in the West Philippine Sea, inconsistent with the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that determined Chinese claims in the South China Sea to be illegitimate. Despite these challenges, the Philippines is committed to its military modernization and capacity building in the face of intensifying Chinese threats.  

Philippines Defense Modernization 

The Philippines is currently undergoing a significant defense modernization program, driven by increasing regional tensions with China. The Re-Horizon 3 plan will incrementally increase the Philippine defense budget and commit US$35 billion over the next ten years for strategic acquisitions to prioritize maritime security, air defense, intelligence gathering, and cybersecurity capabilities.  

Regarding maritime security, the Philippines is looking to enhance its naval capabilities through the acquisition of new vessels, including frigates and corvettes, and upgrade existing vessels. The government is also investing in upgrading its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to improve situational awareness and early warning, with cybersecurity infrastructure being strengthened to protect critical defense systems and data from cyberattacks. The most significant area is in air defense. The Philippines is acquiring modern air defense systems, such as radar and missile systems, to detect and intercept aerial threats.  

Notably, operations in the Red Sea have shown the military necessity of forming international coalitions in maintaining regional stability – a challenge that the Philippines will face in a conflict with China. One of the most important aspects of this is the Philippines strengthening defense cooperation with allies like the United States, Australia, Japan, and India in the areas of training, technology transfer, and join exercises to enhance its air defense capabilities. Some notable examples of this type of engagement include:  

Chinese Coercion on the Philippines 

China’s escalating coercion against the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea has been a growing concern. China claims almost the entire South China Sea, including areas within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone and has used political and diplomatic measures to bolster its coercive measures.  

China uses its Coast Guard and maritime militia to intimidate Filipino vessels by using dangerous maneuvers, deploying military-grade lasers and water cannons to disorientate ship operators and crew, and ramming tactics. China has also been preventing Filipino fishermen from accessing traditional fishing areas within the Philippine EEZ, which has impacted local economies and food security.  

On a larger scale, the Chinese military has constructed artificial islands in the Spratly Islands and militarized them with airstrips, radar facilities, and anti-access area denial systems. China has also consistently ignored the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which invalidated its South China Sea claims. These actions have raised concerns about China’s intentions and its ability to project power in the region.  

Filipino Resistance to China 

When first taking office, former President Rodrigo Duterte sought to shift the Philippines’ foreign relations away from the United States and move toward China. However, his China-friendly policies led to the weakening of Philippine maritime security in the West Philippine Sea. Now, Duterte’s style of governance is viewed as dangerous and outdated, with both the Filipino people and leadership understanding the importance of standing up to China’s aggressive foreign policy.  

Former Philippines Senator Richard Gordon noted that “when a military power leaves, a vacuum occurs, and soon enough the Chinese are taking over Scarborough Shoals, driving our fishermen away and taunting and intimidating [Filipino boats].” He also emphasized that without adequate defense capabilities and support from security partners, the Chinese military will continue to encroach on Philippine territory.  

The Philippines has also been outspoken in its opposition to Chinese aggression in its EEZ. In response to repeated gray zone tactics, the Philippines has used publicity campaigns to “name and shame” Beijing’s behavior. They have done this by inviting journalists to the area to observe Chinese behavior and call out China by name for its aggression. This transparency campaign has made these gray zone tactics more visible and has already fostered discussion on policy tools to counter them without the risk of military escalation.  

A Philippine group, the Atin Ito Coalition (translated to “this is ours”), led a civilian mission to deliver supplies to Filipino fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal. Despite being shadowed by Chinese Coast Guard vessels; the group’s advance team was able to reach the shoal to provide the fishermen with supplies. The main flotilla, consisting of five commercial vessels and 100 fishing boats, turned back before reaching the shoal. China dismisses this mission as a publicity stunt, while the Philippine Coast Guard monitored the situation without direct involvement in the activists’ activities.  

This civilian effort will prove to be significant as it marks only the start of active public involvement in the West Philippine Sea dispute. The previous Duterte administration is largely viewed as an anomaly, with a pro-United States and pro-defense stance enjoying strong favor in the government, public institutions, and among the Filipino people. We should expect the Philippines to increase its defense cooperation with partners and allies from around the world and build its defense capabilities, while seeking to manage its relationship with Beijing and avoid unnecessary military escalation.  




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