MANILA – As China-Philippine tensions escalate over disputed features in the South China Sea, the United States and its regional allies are lending Manila a firm helping hand in asserting its claims.
“In the role of the United States in those resupplies, they were providing freedom of navigation, they were conducting freedom of navigation operations on their own uncoordinated with us,” said Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, referring to recent news of the US Pentagon’s operational support during the Philippines’ latest resupply mission to the contested Second Thomas Shoal.
Last week, the Philippines conducted a follow-up resupply mission to the contested shoal by delivering basic goods to its marine detachment stationed on the grounded BRP Sierra Madre.
Reports said that a US Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft was hovering just over the horizon in a clear show of support for the Philippines. The two long-time allies share a mutual defense treaty.
“Well, they (US) might have coordinated it. But that’s below my level of coordination if ever,” the Philippine defense chief added, refusing to provide more details on top-level coordination with the US during the latest Philippine resupply mission.
Earlier, both the US State Department and Pentagon reiterated their mutual defense treaty (MDT) commitment to aid Philippine forces in the event of skirmishes with China in the South China Sea.
But the US isn’t the only major ally providing support. Last week, Australia, which has a status forces of agreement with the Southeast Asian nation, conducted a historic Combined Amphibious Assault Exercise with the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Zambales, which faces the South China Sea.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is set to visit Manila early next month, reportedly the first “state visit” by any Australian leader in recent memory. Meanwhile, Australia, Japan and the Philippines also conducted joint patrols in the South China Sea in a clear show of strength amid rising tensions in the area.
Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles indicated that more joint patrols are in the cards in the coming months, as the Philippines fortifies defense ties with traditional allies.
Following this month’s Second Thomas Shoal showdown, when Chinese coast guard vessels blocked a Philippine resupply vessel with water cannon fire, the US came under pressure to show more support to its treaty ally.
In recent years, the two sides have coordinated to ensure the US can provide robust “just-over-the-horizon” operational support in times of need. At the same time, the two allies have sought to strike a fine balance in developing military ties so as not to overly provoke China.
This enhanced cooperation with the US has emboldened Philippine forces to challenge China’s de facto blockade, with both the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine Coast Guard pressing ahead with asserting Manila’s claim in the area.
The shift in tack has been apparent with the transition from former president Rodrigo Duterte, who favored a non-confrontational policy toward Beijing, to Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who has shown a willingness to tackle China head-on in the contested sea.
Chinese analysts quoted in the state-run Global Times warned earlier this month that “Manila has increasingly become a bridgehead in Asia for the US’ anti-China push, at the cost of its own security and interests.”
“Geographically close to China, bases of the Philippines that Manila allows the US-led Western forces to use to attack China if a cross-Straits conflict breaks out, would inevitably become battlefield(s),” Global Times quoted Chinese military expert Song Zhongping as saying.
Song questioned “Is this Manila’s best strategic choice to secure itself? Or it would work the opposite.”
Legally, the contested Second Thomas Shoal is a low-tide elevation, which can’t be claimed as a “territory.”
But since it falls within the Philippines’ 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ), giving the coastal state exclusive rights over exploiting fisheries and subsea resources, Manila maintains that it has no obligation to explain its presence in the area, especially to China.
In 2016, an arbitral tribunal at The Hague, formed under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ruled against China’s expansive “nine-dash line” claims, which cut into the Philippines’ EEZ including across the Second Thomas Shoal.
“We are not going to back down in exposing their aggressive behavior in the West Philippine Sea,” said Jay Tarriela, the Philippine Coast Guard spokesman for the West Philippine Sea, ahead of the latest resupply mission.
Accusing China of trying to “block, harass and interfere” with the Philippines’ resupply mission within its own EEZ, he described the showdown as a “David and Goliath” situation.
The reality, however, is that the Pentagon provided certain operational support, suddenly making the showdown more of a Goliath versus Goliath situation.
The presence of the American surveillance aircraft near the disputed shoal, combined with the Philippines’ deployment of relatively large resupply vessels, appeared to deter China from employing coercive means.
This was not, however, the first time that the US and the Philippines coordinated their actions in the area.
Over the past decade, China, emboldened by its occupation of the Manila-claimed Scarborough Shoal following a months-long naval showdown in mid-2012, has repeatedly sought to squeeze Philippine marines out of the area by imposing a de facto blockade.
In response, the Barack Obama administration deployed drones and surveillance reconnaissance to assist the AFP’s resupply missions.
In 2016, then-US Defense Secretary Ash Carter boarded the USS John Stennis aircraft carrier during a patrol in the area in order to push back against China’s growing assertiveness.
Yet China continued to press its claims during the Duterte administration, which adopted a broadly subservient approach towards Beijing. In 2018 and 2019, Chinese vessels tried to disrupt Philippine resupply missions to the Second Thomas Shoal.
Following another incident in late 2021, as Duterte began to warm up to the Pentagon and reverse his pivot to Beijing, two Chinese coast guard ships blocked Philippine vessels from providing supplies to BRP Sierra Madre.
In response, the US rhetorically reaffirmed its mutual defense obligations to the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Earlier this year, Admiral Samuel Paparo, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Fleet, made it clear that the US is prepared to assist its Southeast Asian ally in the area.
He accused China of “frequently interfer[ing] with [Philippines’ Second Thomas Shoal] resupplies,” which is “clearly unlawful.”
Adding to the strategic equation, Australia, Japan and the Philippines are now also conducting joint patrols in the South China Sea. Moreover, the Philippines and Australia also conducted the Amphibious and Land Operations of the Indo-Pacific Endeavor 2023 (ALON).
A first-of-its-kind operation, the bilateral exercises were nominally meant to enhance interoperability and the Philippines’ overall coastal defense capability.
As many as 2,200 troops from both nations, along with American forces, participated in the joint exercises. Canberra deployed state-of-the-art weapons systems, including F-35A Lightning-II aircrafts and M1A1 Abrams tanks that were joined by US Marine Corps V-22 Ospreys and the Philippine Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles.
Leaving little to the imagination, the exercises saw the three allies fighting a fictional enemy named “Calabania”, which, carrying a red flag and with red arm bands, overtly resembled China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“We are two countries committed to an idea of a world in which disputes are determined by reference to international laws,” Australian defense chief Richard Marles said following the massive drills while vowing to explore more joint exercises and patrols in the near future.
“A whole lot of damage can be done to Australia before any potential adversary sets foot on our shores, and maintaining the rules-based order in Southeast Asia, maintaining the collective security of Southeast Asia, is fundamental to maintaining the national security of our country,” he added.
China’s Global Times responded to the exercises in tough terms, saying that “Australia’s intention is to assume the role of a ‘small America’ or a ‘minor hegemon’ in the Indo-Pacific region at the cost of being instrumentalized and weaponized by the US, while the reckless provocation to China will only harm its own interests in the long run, experts warned.
The report cited Chinese experts saying “Albanese’s plan to visit the Philippines is a clear indication of Australia’s alignment with the strategic intentions of the US – to further provoke and incite Philippine’s provocations.”
Albanese is set to visit Manila this week, underscoring the upswing in ties. Although the trip is being billed as the first Australian leader “state visit” in decades, it largely builds on efforts by nimble predecessors, most notably former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who twice visited Manila to upgrade bilateral ties under both the Aquino and Duterte administrations.
“I think we would be discussing for sure also the continuation of this kind of joint exercise to increase the capabilities again of our (forces),” Marcos Jr said following the recently concluded military drills with Australia.
“It is an important aspect of how we prepare for any eventualities, considering there have been so many events that attest to the volatility of the region,” Marcos Jr said.
Source : AsiaTimes