Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has vowed to defend his country’s territory after two more confrontations with Chinese vessels in contested parts of the South China Sea over the weekend. The two incidents, one of which involved a collision between a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel and a Philippine resupply ship, took place in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal and Scarborough Shoal, the site of a number of recent skirmishes between the two nations.
“The aggression and provocations perpetrated by the China Coast Guard and their Chinese Maritime Militia against our vessels and personnel over the weekend have only further steeled our determination to defend and protect our nation’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea,” Marcos said in a statement, using his government’s term for its portion of the South China Sea.
“No one but the Philippines has a legitimate right or legal basis to operate anywhere in the West Philippine Sea,” Marcos added. “The illegal presence in our waters and dangerous actions against our citizens is an outright and blatant violation of international law and the rules-based international order.”
The second and more serious of the two confrontations took place yesterday in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands. According to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), the CCG and Chinese maritime militia ships “harassed, blocked, and executed dangerous maneuvers on Philippine civilian supply vessels,” in order to prevent the Philippine forces from resupplying the small detachment of troops stationed aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting warship that it purposefully grounded on the shoal in 1999.
In a statement posted on X (formerly Twitter), PCG spokesperson Jay Tarriela accused the CCG of ramming one of the supply vessels, Unaizah Mae 1, which was seeking to resupply the Philippine troops stationed at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands.
Tarriela also accused CCG of firing high-pressured water cannons at a second supply ship, M/L Kalayaan, causing it “severe damage” to its engines, “disabling the vessel and seriously endangering the lives of its crew.”
The water cannons were also directed at a PCG vessel, BRP Cabra, which “suffered damage to its mast,” Tarriela said. While the M/L Kalayaan had to be towed back to the western Philippine province of Palawan, he added, Unaizah Mae 1 “successfully reached BRP Sierra Madre, and resupply is ongoing as of this writing.”
All of this came a day after the Philippine government accused a CCG vessel of using a water cannon “at least 8 times” at a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessel close to Scarborough Shoal, which lies around 200 kilometers due west of Luzon island, according to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea. The confrontation took place after Filipino fishermen observed a Chinese boat installing a floating barrier at the southeast entrance of Scarborough Shoal, which Manila refers to as Bajo De Masinloc. According to the Task Force, the cannons resulted in “significant damage” to the BFAR vessel.
Both Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal, which lie within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but are also enclosed by Beijing’s maximalist “nine-dash line” claim, have been the subject of concerted Chinese pressure campaigns in 2023. Beijing has imposed an informal blockade on Second Thomas Shoal. This has resulted in a number of confrontations, including one in October in which Chinese vessels collided with a Philippine supply ship and navy vessel. Chinese vessels have also used high-powered water cannons and a military-grade laser to drive away Philippine supply ships.
At the same time, Chinese ships have blocked Filipino fishermen from accessing the rich fishing grounds inside Scarborough Shoal. In September, they installed a submerged barrier to block the entrance to the shoal’s central lagoon, which Philippine personnel later removed.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government has advanced its own version of events, claiming that the Unaizah Mae 1 “made an unprofessional and dangerous sudden turn, intentionally ramming into China Coast Guard vessel 21556.” Speaking in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Gan Yu called on the Philippines to cease its “provocative acts,” vowing that Chinese vessels would continue their “law-enforcement activities” within the waters enclosed by the nine-dash line.
In a separate post on X, which responded to the Chinese claims, Tarriela said that the weekend’s incidents highlighted “China’s blatant inclination to engage in illegal and hostile actions in order to assert their self-serving claim in the West Philippine Sea.”
“They have shown no hesitation in violating international law and even posing a threat to peace and the established rules-based order,” he said. “It is evident that they carry out these illegal actions because they believe they can, taking advantage of the perceived vulnerability of countries like the Philippines to assert their dominance.”
At this stage, it remains unclear when this spiral of escalation might come to an end. As the Philippines has responded to the aggressive Chinese campaign by strengthening its relations with the United States and other close partners like Japan and Australia, Beijing has responded by intensifying its pressure further.
It also raises the question of when the U.S. government, which in a statement yesterday condemned China’s “dangerous and unlawful actions,” might feel an obligation to respond. On numerous occasions, most recently in yesterday’s statement, U.S. officials have pledged to come to the Philippines’ aid under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which “recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.”
When exactly the belligerent use of water cannons and ramming tactics crosses the line from a “gray zone” tactic, designed to fall short of the threshold of war, to a full-blown armed attack is vague and unclear. As Collin Koh of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, wrote on X, “When your water cannon attack actually caused physical damage, injury, and potentially death, it begs the question about whether it matters whether you use firearms or just the kinetic force of water to qualify as an ‘armed attack’.”
The recent pattern of escalation from China suggests that it is determined to test the mettle of both the Philippines and its long-time security ally, sharply increasing the chances that one side will make a catastrophic miscalculation, with dire implications for the region as a whole.