By Philip J. Heijmans and Cliff Venzon
(Bloomberg) –Even as concerns mount in the US over a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the flashpoint most likely to spark a conflict between the world’s largest economies is currently an immobile World War II-era ship sitting in waters further to the south.
Recent months have seen water cannon fire, repeated close encounters and diplomatic protests, as the Philippines, a treaty ally of the US, has pushed back against recurring Chinese incursions in its exclusive economic zone.
Matters came to a boil last weekend when boats from the two countries collided on two separate occasions as the Philippines attempted to resupply the dilapidated ship it has used to reinforce its territorial claims.
China has repeatedly accused Manila of infringing on its territorial sovereignty while Philippine officials, emboldened by an increasingly assertive President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., are weighing how best to add military heft to future missions.
The US, for its part, has clarified its commitments to the Philippines and President Joe Biden was unequivocal in his comments earlier this week. “I want to be very clear: The United States’ defense commitment to the Philippines is ironclad,” he said Wednesday at the White House.
The Philippines is not the only nation at risk as the US accuses China of repeated incidents between its two militaries. On Thursday, US Indo-Pacific Command released video footage that it said showed a Chinese J-11 fighter executing an “unsafe intercept” of a US Air Force B-52 bomber over the South China Sea.
With neither side backing down, some former officials see the situation only worsening. The prospect of an incident in the waters that could drag the US into direct conflict with China makes the South China Sea “far more dangerous” than the Taiwan Strait, according to Zhou Bo, who served as a senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army from 2003 to 2020.
“The Americans will keep on sending ships and aircraft to come, and for such a practice they have practiced for decades. It’s difficult for American to back down,” he said during a conference in Vietnam on Wednesday. The “Chinese military is growing and we’re big and stronger. Of course we’ve become less tolerant towards what we consider to be a provocation.”
Ties between the two geopolitical rivals remain fragile, despite recent improvements. An alleged Chinese spy balloon that overflew the US earlier this year upended relations that had started to stabilize after Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met in Bali in late 2022. The latest tensions in the South China Sea have to potential to once again upend warming relations ahead of an expected meeting between Biden with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Washington this week.
“It is unavoidable that it will be raised in every meeting, but with little hope of progress,” said Gregory Poling, who directs the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The South China Sea certainly jeopardizes warming ties because China’s unsafe behavior makes it likelier than not that we will eventually see more violence.”
At the heart of the recent tensions between the Philippines and China is a barely habitable ship that has, for over two decades, served as Manila’s lone guardian in the Second Thomas Shoal. The feature, part of the Spratly Islands chain, is claimed by both China and the Philippines. Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the Spratly’s.
Philippines grounded the BRP Sierra Madre back in 1999 — a reaction to China’s occupation of nearby Mischief Reef four years earlier. It remains a commissioned naval vessel and became an active outpost designed to maintain the Philippines’ claims over the shoal. Manila has stationed a small contingent of marines on board the ship ever since.
But the Philippine claim rests on its ability to keep the vessel intact. Over the years, its officials have become increasingly worried that degradation has left the ship’s hull addled by rust and gaping holes — something that if left unattended could render the ship uninhabitable.
Until recently, China has largely tolerated resupply runs to feed the small number of troops stationed aboard. Attempts at bringing construction materials were forcibly blocked, raising concerns that the shoal could fall into Beijing’s hands once the ship falls into disrepair.
“The deterioration is faster than the supply that we do,” Philippine defense senior undersecretary Ireneo Espino reportedly said last month. The extent to which the ship is at risk remains unclear.
Under Marcos, the Philippines has ramped up the frequency of these missions, while publicly posting footage of any encounters with Chinese vessels as the leader adopts a more assertive posture toward Beijing. Last month, he made headlines after ordering a “special operation” in which his coast guard removed a barrier installed by China at the entrance of another shoal.
“The US has put a visible presence near re-supply missions. There is growing support in the American policy community for a more active role, but I suspect that will be seen as too provocative and too risky by the Biden administration,” said John Bradford, an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who spent more than two decades in the US Navy.
The US Department of Defense this month outlined the extent of China’s expansive ambitions in the South China Sea, including reclamation of outposts in the Spratly Islands as reported by Bloomberg News in December.
Beijing meanwhile has urged Manila to “stop making provocations at sea” while the Philippines’ armed forces chief of staff, General Romeo Brawner Jr., says it is weighing options to reinforce the supply runs by including Philippine naval vessels or by conducting them as joint missions with other countries.
“We will admit we’re worried,” the military chief told reporters on Wednesday. But added that the military given its experience remains “willing to defend our territory.”
© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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