he United States reiterated its commitment to help the Philippines defend against an attack from China following an incident that occurred in the South China Sea on February 6th.
According to witnesses, vessels belonging to the Chinese coast guard and maritime militia created a blockade that prevented the Philippine patrol vessel BRP Malapascua from resupplying troops stationed on the Second Thomas Shoal.
At least one coast guard ship attacked the Philippine vessel with a military-grade laser, temporarily blinding members of the crew, and approached to within 150 yards. Chinese ships blocked a resupply mission to the same area in August 2022 but did not employ lasers.
Speaking on the incident, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin claimed the Philippine ship was trespassing in Chinese waters and said the Chinese vessels ‘responded professionally and with restraint.’
The incident occurred roughly one month after Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Romualdez Marcos Jr. (known as PBBM) met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing to discuss bilateral relations. This month, he met with a Chinese ambassador in Manila to express his concerns regarding “the increasing frequency and intensity of actions by China against the Philippine coast guard and fishermen.”
Japan – with whom the US has recently tightened its military relationship as part of a broader effort to mitigate Chinese expansion – also condemned China’s use of a laser.
“All states should respect maritime order based on international law,” said Japanese Ambassador to the Philippines Koshikawa Kazuhiko. “We firmly oppose any action that increase tensions.”
Manila’s Department of Foreign Affairs sent a message directly to the Chinese Embassy condemning the attacking ship and its use of a laser, adding to the nearly 200 diplomatic protests submitted by Philippine officials against the actions of Chinese vessels and aircraft in 2022.
“[China’s] dangerous operational behavior directly threatens regional peace and stability, infringes upon freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guarded under international law, and undermines the rules-based international order,” argued US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price, adding that any armed attack against Philippine vessels or aircraft would invoke US commitments outlined in a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reminded China of America’s commitments per the treaty last summer as he urged Beijing to comply with a 2016 arbitration ruling that refutes China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea region. The warning had little-to-no effect.
Relations between China and the Philippines grew closer in recent years under the leadership of former President Rodrigo Duterte, who was largely pro-China and anti-US. This is not the case with PBBM, who has taken action to improve cooperation with Washington as Beijing continues to encroach on territory near the island nation and interfere with its military and fishing industry.
It is strange to think that it has been more than 30 years since the Philippines asked the US to end its 94-year military presence on the island and dismantle its permanent military bases. Now, as tensions between China and the Philippines continue to increase, the island nation has once again appealed to the US for help.
“By itself, the Philippines cannot stand up to China so it does need the assistance of the United States,” explains Kenneth Faulve-Montojo, a senior lecturer at Santa Clara University. “So from the US and the Philippine perspective, it appears to be a win, win situation.”
This month, Philippine officials granted the US military access to four new military bases in addition to the five it was already using. The increased access “will make our alliance stronger and more resilient, and will accelerate modernization of our combined military capabilities,” said the Pentagon on February 1st.
Improved military cooperation between the US and the Philippines will also allow for “more rapid support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines” and boost economic growth.
The US and the Philippines have also decided to reinstate joint military drills, kicking things off this year with a massive “Balikatan” that will involve some 9,000+ troops.
“All of these exercises that we are doing are in response to all types of threats that we may be facing in the future, both man-made and natural,” said Manila Army chief Romeo Brawner.
The Philippines holds significant strategic value for the US military.
“That archipelago is guaranteed to give the United States a kind of strike capability that the base in Okinawa or the base in Thailand is unable to give,” says Diane Desierto, a professor of global affairs at the University of Notre Dame. “Its access to the main waterways in the South China Sea enables flexibility for US troops and enables multiple theaters of engagement for the US, not just in Northeast Asia, but also Southeast Asia.”