China-Philippines one step closer to armed conflict – Asia Times

MANILA – It has been almost a quarter since China implemented fresh sea rules for the South China Sea, and yet another significant event involving Philippine and Chinese sea forces has erupted in the contested waters.

Following a collision on Monday ( June 17 ) between their ships over the Second Thomas Shoal, a feature that houses a de facto Philippine naval base aboard the stalled BRP Sierra Madre vessel, the two countries have exchanged accusations.

A Asian resupply vessel was allegedly rammed and town by the country’s joint task force overseeing the region’s waterways in the South China Sea, which is known by Manila as the” West Philippine Sea,” according to the Philippines ‘ joint work force.

According to Manila, Philippine service members suffered “bodily damage” while Spanish vessels sustained damage, which raises the possibility of an armed conflict between the two neighbors.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines must reject China’s reckless and dangerous actions in the West Philippine Sea, according to Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro’s passionate speech. ” China’s activities are the true impediments to peace and stability in the South China Sea”, he added, underscoring a fresh nadir in diplomatic relations.

China, for its part, accused the Spanish supplies vessel of “deliberately and frighteningly” approaching a Chinese ship, which caused a modest collision following the latter’s “illegal intrusion]” into Chinese-claimed waters, a charge Manila has refuted as “deceptive and misleading” after months of intimidation and violent actions by Chinse maritime forces in the area.

The possible involvement of the United States, which has a reciprocal security agreement with Manila, is what makes the conflict between the Philippines and China so concerning.

In a statement released in a public forum, the US State Department squarely attributed China for its most recent “provocations” following a number of incidents and situations over the Next Thomas Shoal in the last year alone.

“]Chinese ] vessels ‘ dangerous and deliberate use of water cannons, ramming, blocking maneuvers and towing damaged Philippine vessels, endangered the lives of Philippine service members, is reckless, and threatens regional peace and stability”, a US State Department statement said.

There is no justification to believe that the conflicts may immediately end. Beijing has mandated the Taiwanese Coast Guard to detain suspected intruders in the so-called nine-dash line for up to 60 days without trial under recently imposed maritime guidelines.

The Philippine Coast Guard responded by deploying two vessels&nbsp to police Philippine-claimed waters in particular the Scarborough Shoal, which is located only over 100 nautical miles from Asian coasts and about 345 coastal yards from the Second Thomas Shoal.

By all evidence, both sides are digging in. The Philippines has doubled down on both its political speech and military exercises with European allies because it is a significantly weaker party physically.

Earlier this year, the Philippine defence chief accused China of trying to “bully” Manila “into distribution” or “appeasement” through an extremely muscular “gray zone” strategy in the South China Sea, which he said involved extreme tactics that fall just short of military confrontation.

He went so far as to identify the Asiatic power as an “existential concern” to the Philippines, underscoring the level of anxiety in Manila.

The Philippines is strengthening its deterrence capabilities while regularizing high-stakes drills with allies to strengthen its strategic position. The Philippines ‘ first BrahMos anti-ship missile base is beginning to form at a naval facility close to the disputed waters, according to recent satellite imagery.

Following India’s delivery of the highly praised supersonic missile defense system earlier this year, the US-based anti-ship missile acquisition project, which cost the country$ 375 million, took off.

This has coincided with America’s growing deployment of increasingly sophisticated weapons systems for major drills in the Philippines, including the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System ( HIMARS ) as well as the US Army’s new MRC/Typhon system, which is capable of firing Tomahawk and SM- 6 missiles.

With the introduction of the US Army’s Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center to the Philippines this year, the two sides are also getting ready for a potential full invasion by an external power as well as a significant contingency in Taiwan.

In the Philippines, there is growing concern about the possibility of granting the Pentagon permission to install a number of sophisticated missile defense systems on designated Philippine bases in accordance with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement ( EDCA ), particularly those that face both Taiwan’s southern shores and the westernmost reaches of the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, the Philippines has also stepped up its multilateral naval drills with like- minded powers. The US, Japan, and Canada recently joined them for a two-day drill in the South China Sea to reiterate” the four nations ‘ commitment to bolstering regional security and stability.”

For a two-day drill in the Philippines ‘ exclusive economic zone ( EEZ ) in the South China Sea, BRP Andres Bonifacio, Canadian frigate HMCS Montreal, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Kirisame, and US guided missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson were present.

The US Indo-Pacific Command stated in a statement that” cooperation like this represents the centerpiece of our approach to a secure and prosperous region where aircraft and ships of all nations may fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”

Although these exercises improve interoperability between the Philippines and its allies and promote military modernization, they do little to counteract China’s “gray zone” actions in the long run.

China’s increasingly assertive attitude toward the Philippines is most likely a result of its worries about Manila’s growing military ties with Western powers, who want to have more access to military installations in the Southeast Asian nation.

The Biden administration has made it clear on numerous occasions that a “armed attack” on Philippine public vessels in the South China Sea would immediately force bilateral mutual defense agreements to be in force.

But there has been no effective response so far to China’s gray zone approach. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. stated earlier this month that any Philippine service member’s death would be “very close to what we define as an act of war.”

However, he was hesitant to say whether any casualties brought on by China’s “gray zone” tactics would be treated with American military intervention.

The US has n’t yet stated what it would do in response to any Chinese “gray zone” tactics that could cause the deaths of Philippine naval officers. In consequence, both China and the Philippines are caught in a risky strategic conundrum, whereby each side is encouraged to push the envelope while hoping that no real war breaks out.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on X at @Richeydarian