Illustration: Craig Stephens
Richard Heydarian
Richard Heydarian

Philippines’ dithering over South China Sea clash fuelled by US doubts

  • Dithering official statements reflect not only Philippine fears of unwanted escalation but also, crucially, doubts over US defence commitments
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr is busy playing down the risks of a major conflict in the South China Sea after yet another dangerous clash, this time with axe-wielding Chinese maritime forces that left injuries, including one Filipino soldier who lost his thumb.
“We are not in the business to instigate wars,” Marcos Jnr told troops at a military base in Palawan, which embraces the South China Sea. “We refuse to play by the rules that force us to choose sides in a great power competition.”
Earlier this month, Chinese maritime forces disarmed Philippine naval servicemen on a resupply vessel headed for Second Thomas Shoal. This led to calls for Manila to invoke its Mutual Defence Treaty with the United States.
Perturbed by the possibility of a major escalation, Filipino officials have struggled to maintain a consistent stance. Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jnr Defence Secretary has refuted Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin’s claim that it “was probably a misunderstanding or an accident”, maintaining: “It was an aggressive and illegal use of force.”
Marcos has sought the middle ground, insisting he will “stand firm” and not yield to “any foreign power” amid the festering maritime dispute.

The dithering and seemingly confused statements from Philippine officials, however, are a reflection of fears of unwanted escalation and, crucially, doubts over the extent of America’s commitment to come to the country’s aid.


Chinese and Philippine ships clash in first incident under Beijing’s new coast guard law

Chinese and Philippine ships clash in first incident under Beijing’s new coast guard law
Washington and Manila are under growing pressure to upgrade their alliance to prevent more drastic scenarios, including a Chinese occupation of the Philippines’ de facto base in Second Thomas Shoal.
Weeks before the latest incident, Marcos warned that the killing of any Filipino in “a wilful act” by a foreign power in the South China Sea would be “very, very close to what we define as an act of war”, which would invoke the Mutual Defence Treaty with the US.

The problem is that Washington has a long history of equivocating on its defence obligations to the Philippines. In the early 1970s, US secretary of state Henry Kissinger pressed for a policy of strategic ambiguity by raising “substantial doubts that [a Philippine] military contingent on island in the Spratly group would come within protection” of the Mutual Defence Treaty.

The treaty “may apply in event of attack on [Philippine] forces deployed to third countries”, he clarified, although this would be “fundamentally different from [a] case where deployment is for purpose of enlarging Philippine territory”.

The 1951 treaty is itself riddled with ambiguity, since it only obliges Washington to come to its Southeast Asian ally’s help “to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes”.


US and Philippines conduct annual Balikatan drills amid rising tensions with China

US and Philippines conduct annual Balikatan drills amid rising tensions with China
In short, there was never any automaticity in the US military commitment to the Philippines in the South China Sea, hence the refusal of both the Clinton and Obama administrations to intervene on Manila’s behalf during the Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal crises in 1995 and 2012 respectively.

America’s unreliability has begun to alienate the Filipino people. An authoritative survey conducted in late 2016, just months after the election of Beijing-friendly president Rodrigo Duterte, showed that half of the respondents either disagreed (17 per cent) or were undecided (33 per cent) when asked if “security/defence relations with the US have been beneficial to the Philippines” in the context of the South China Sea disputes. If anything, a significant number of those surveyed backed Duterte’s pursuit of warming defence ties with China and Russia.

In response, both the Trump and Biden administrations have made clear that any armed attack on Philippine troops, public vessels and aircraft in the South China Sea would be covered by the Mutual Defence Treaty. The problem, however, is that China’s “grey zone” actions fall below the threshold of an armed attack, thus undermining the deterrence value of America’s reassurances.

In fairness, this gap has been identified by both Philippine and US officials. Last year, legal experts at the Indo-Pacific Command recommended that the Mutual Defence Treaty should also apply to the “illegal use of force” which “could also include non-kinetic attacks that result in death, injury, damage or destruction of persons or objects”.

So far, there are no signs that the Biden administration, which is heading into an intense election and distracted by conflicts from Ukraine to Gaza, has officially revised the parameters and guidelines underpinning the Mutual Defence Treaty. Nor has America provided any state-of-the-art weapons systems to the Philippines in the past decade, even as it provides tens of billions of dollars in defence aid to Kyiv and Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, there are fears China may resort to more drastic measures, namely seeking to occupy the Sierra Madre, a grounded vessel serving as the Philippines’ de facto military base on Second Thomas Shoal. To deter such a scenario, the US may be forced to clarify that the Mutual Defence Treaty will cover any excessive use of force that may lead to fatalities of Filipino soldiers in the South China Sea. As I understand it, based on conversations with former and current officials, troops are under instruction to use live munitions, as a last resort, to defend the besieged base.

Washington may also need to consider the transfer of defence assets such as a landing craft and high-speed boats to boost the Philippine patrol and resupply capacity. Ultimately, the two allies might consider joint patrols and resupply missions, with US warships and drones on the horizon.

For now, what’s clear is America’s credibility as both an ally and regional leader is under growing question, thanks to China’s efforts to alter the status quo based on its expansive claims in one of the world’s most important seascapes.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific, and the forthcoming Duterte’s Rise