China Security and Risk Tracker
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MERICS China Security and Risk Tracker 02/2024

Rising tensions in the South China Sea: risks and implications for Europe

Tensions are mounting in the South China Sea again. The Philippines under President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos is trying to turn the tables on China with a new strategy of publicizing China’s actions and collaboration with allies, particularly the United States and Japan. Beijing is bristling at its success and responding with increased aggression. China Coast Guard vessels caused two collisions with Philippine ships in March during a mission to resupply a Philippine vessel, injuring four crew members.  And in one of the most recent and worst flare-ups of violence, the China Coast Guard rammed and intercepted a Philippine Navy resupply mission, then proceeding to board the Philippine boats, armed with knives. The skirmish caused injuries among Filipino personnel and damaged some of the Philippines’ ships, which China then seized and tried to tow away.  Manila promptly released videos of these incidents. 

The situation in the Taiwan Strait will continue to pose serious challenges to regional stability as China attempts to intimidate the new government of President Lai Ching-te of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and to reestablish its red lines. But the South China Sea could pose greater short-term risks to international actors. Tensions in the region have ratcheted up as the Philippines and China face off, though their dispute has garnered far less international attention. It is a volatile situation in which escalation seems a distinct possibility. Manila’s renewed engagement with partners creates opportunities for Europe, but dangers too.

Tensions flare over the Sierra Madre

China and the Philippines have been clashing over the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands for the last year. The shoal lies within the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). However, China lays claim to it. The Philippines maintains a small military contingent there, onboard a now crumbling ship – the BRP Sierra Madre – which Manila intentionally grounded in 1999 to reinforce its control of the area. 

What for decades was a manageable issue for both sides, has now become the focal point of China-Philippines tensions. Relations soured between Manila and Beijing after Marcos took power in 2022 and abandoned his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s more China-friendly stance. This translated into a rapid increase in harassment and aggression against Philippine activities in the South China Sea. Manila’s monthly resupply missions to its marines on the Sierra Madre, which had long taken place without too much pushback from Beijing, became a target. Claiming to be repulsing the Philippine’s attempts to repair the ship and keep it grounded for longer, China’s Coast Guard has repeatedly used water cannons and other aggressive tactics against Philippine ships, causing a few collisions and injuries. 

Beijing has tried to shift blame for the tension onto Manila, accusing the Philippines of ignoring a “gentleman’s agreement”  it had with former president Duterte. Beijing has announced it is willing to allow Manila to continue resupplying the Sierra Madre with the necessities – but only if Manila seeks permission in advance,  a non-starter for the Philippines as it would amount to a tacit acknowledgement of China’s sovereignty. 

Beijing’s tactics are backfiring

Beijing’s intimidation attempts have not had the desired effect. China’s leadership seemed to expect Manila to back down if they applied enough pressure. Instead, the Philippines has adopted a new strategy to resist and fight back against Chinese aggression, using greater transparency and not shying away from confrontations at sea. Manila now regularly denounces and publicizes China’s actions – shining a spotlight on Beijing’s operations by releasing videos of encounters with Chinese Coast Guard ships and inviting international journalists onboard its own vessels. These moves have taken the initiative and narrative control away from Beijing. China’s Minister of Defense, Admiral Dong Jun, has lashed out against the Philippines’ creation of “false scenarios to mislead the public”,  giving a clear sign this strategy is hitting China where it hurts.

Criticizing China for unsafe maneuvers and aggressive behavior has helped raise awareness among the Filipino public. It has also rallied international support in an unprecedented way. China’s coercion – a shared concern for many regional actors – has given momentum to Manila’s efforts to deepen its relations and security cooperation with partners, both regional and global. In April, the Philippines, Australia, Japan and the United States conducted their first-ever joint patrol within the Philippines’ EEZ in the South China Sea.  A few days later, Marcos attended the first ever US-Japan-Philippines trilateral summit in Washington. There he secured some economic and military support and a key statement of support from President Biden. “Any attack on Philippine aircraft, vessels or armed forces in the South China Sea”, he said, “would invoke our mutual defense treaty.” 

Armed with this support, Manila is now ratcheting up its rhetoric too. In clear warnings to Beijing, President Marcos has called for Filipino soldiers to be ready for conflict. He told the Shangri-La Dialogue (31 May-2 June) that any willful incident resulting in Filipino loss of life would be a “crossing of the Rubicon” and likely seen as an act of war.  As the Philippine’s defense secretary Gilbert Teodoro said, China has become an “existential threat” in the South China Sea. 

US backing and greater alignment with, and support from, other partners like Japan or Australia, shows the success of the Marcos administration’s new strategy to stand up to China. It enables the Philippines to stay the course and resist Chinese pressure, as well as helping deter some of China’s worst impulses by clarifying red lines and likely responses. And the Filipino public seems to favor pushback: 73 percent of adults polled in a recent survey expressed support for military action to resist China’s behavior.  

Manila’s international outreach and focus on deterrence creates opportunities for Europe to step up its Indo-Pacific presence and engagement. By continuing to support Manila, Europe can show itself as a consistent, reliable partner to regional actors. Coordination with Tokyo, Washington and other regional partners to push back against China’s assertive behavior and defend international law could allow Europe to expand its impact without acting alone.

Risk of escalation increases

However, deterrence might not be enough to prevent escalation as there is little sign that Beijing intends to change course. It has put itself in a difficult position. For domestic and geopolitical reasons, it is highly unlikely to offer any concessions that might damage the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) image as defender of China’s sovereignty and national security or its goals of turning China into a regional and global powerhouse by 2049. But at the same time, Beijing is keenly aware that pushing its territorial claims through military means is driving the Philippines and other regional powers closer to the United States and also increasing the risk of military escalation.

Beijing seems to be trying to modulate its approach to avoid losing control of the situation, while keeping the general lines untouched. It is trying to mirror elements of the Philippines’ new transparency strategy, releasing its own videos and statements after incidents. It has even threatened to release a supposed recording of a phone call between a Philippine vice admiral and China’s defense attaché in Manila that it says confirms the existence of a “gentlemen’s agreement” about the Sierra Madre.  Beijing is also trying to spin the narrative (especially with other countries in the Indo-Pacific and Global South) that it is the Philippines that is violating international law and stoking tensions, and that Manila is nothing but a pawn of the United States. China, the argument goes, only seeks stability in the region and it has never created any obstacles to freedom of navigation. After all, about one third of global shipping regularly traverses the South China Sea without issues.

Neither party is seeking to provoke an open war which would have catastrophic economic and geopolitical consequences regionally and globally, on a similar scale to a war in the Taiwan Strait. Yet the rapidly accumulating tensions, increasingly defined positions, heightened military activity and more intense Chinese harassment could easily lead to an accidental escalation that might draw in the United States and other powers. Tensions will only be exacerbated by China’s introduction in June of new regulations empowering its Coast Guard to detain foreign actors for “trespassing” in the South China Sea territories it claims, and by the PLA Navy’s first ever exercise inside the Philippines’ EEZ.  Potential trigger points abound in the short term – they include the moment when the BRP Sierra Madre finally disintegrates, the US elections and possible subsequent shifts in US policy. Any doubts about Washington’s commitment to defend the Philippines could both embolden Beijing and weaken Tokyo’s resolve to step into a conflict. 

Europe should keep a close eye on developments in the South China Sea and on broader regional trends beyond the Taiwan Strait tensions. Europe’s military contributions are and will be limited. However, Europe can still play a role in strengthening deterrence and seeking to prevent escalation. Increasing transparency over red lines and core interests, outlining the consequences of certain Chinese actions, and speaking out in support of international law, and against China’s harassment, are good places to start.