The frequent engagements between the Chinese and Filipino vessels in the contested South China Sea have triggered concerns that these tensions might snowball into an all-out confrontation. However, if that ever happens, the United States will defend Manila under its reinforced Mutual Defense Treaty.
Days after Chinese vessels allegedly intimidated and obstructed the passage of Filipino Coast Guard ships, escalating tensions between the two sides, US President Joe Biden reiterated his “ironclad” defense commitment to the Philippines.
In no ambiguous terms, he warned Beijing that the US would come to the Philippines’ support in case of an attack in the South China Sea (SCS). The warning comes days after a Chinese Coast Guard ship and an escorting vessel hit a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ship and a military-run supply boat off a shoal claimed by both parties.
Some Filipino officials told the media that if the PCG vessels had not quickly steered clear of the Chinese ships, the incident close to the disputed Second Thomas Shoal could have turned more serious.
According to claims made by Filipino officials, China has been trying to isolate a Philippine marine outpost near this shoal, which has also seen encounters between the two sides on previous occasions.
Wide-ranging territorial claims by China in the South China Sea, particularly those over islands close to the Philippine coast, have heightened regional tensions.
Biden’s recent statement was the most fierce and most vigorous. He said, “I want to be clear. I want to be very clear: The United States’ defense commitment to the Philippines is ironclad.
Biden said,” Any attack on the Filipino aircraft, vessels, or armed forces will invoke our Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines.” He made the statement in a speech in the White House on October 25, as he welcomed Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
"Pres Biden has warned #China not to engage in dangerous & unlawful activity towards the #Philippines & warned that any attack on the US ally would trigger Washington’s mutual defence treaty with Manila"https://t.co/hMRf6tHq11
— China Beige Book (@ChinaBeigeBook) October 25, 2023
To China’s dismay, the US has also pulled itself into the conflict, which it attributes to the expansionist Chinese moves in the South China Sea. The US is a long-standing ally of the Philippines and has recently increased engagement with the Southeast Asian country, building on the tenets of their Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
The MDT between the Philippines and the US was signed on August 30, 1951, in Washington, DC. A significant American presence remained in the Philippines even after its independence on July 4, 1946.
The 1947 Military Bases Agreement resulted in the establishment of several US military bases in the Philippines. The two most prominent are the US Naval Station at Subic Bay and Clark Air Base.
The US kept up and ran the bases until 1991 and 1992, respectively. The Philippines has remained the most historic treaty partner of the US in Southeast Asia. The Mutual Defense Treaty, in essence, binds the US and the Philippines into defending each other in the event of an armed attack.
Despite different presidents sitting at the helm over the years, a belief that has remained consistent is that the US is the Philippines’ ‘security umbrella.’
Article 4 of the MDT reads, “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers by its constitutional processes.”
Furthermore, Article 5 of the Treaty says, “An armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties or the Island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”
Both these clauses became an object of intense debate between the United States and the government of former pro-Chinese President Robert Duterte. However, since Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr took office in June 2022, the new establishment has aligned itself closely with Washington in the face of ever-growing threats by the belligerent PLA.
During his US visit in May, Marcos and US President Joe Biden agreed to new guidelines on the countries’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. The US reiterated that it would aid the Philippines in the event of an attack on it anywhere in the South China Sea.
The guidelines also acknowledged the threats posed by “grey zone tactics” employed by China. In return, the Philippines agreed to add four more military bases that the US could access.
Honoring its pledge, a US Navy aircraft passed over two Philippine vessels that had broken through a blockade imposed by the Chinese coast guard to resupply food and other supplies to its forces defending a disputed shoal.
The recent US condemnation of the Chinese aggression and its unconditional support to Manila comes with this renewed commitment to the MDT, which incidentally favors both partners against their common adversary in the region.
That Escalated Quickly!
As soon as the recent incident came to light, The US ambassador to Manila, MaryKay Carlson, wrote on the X social media platform that “the United States condemns the PRC’s latest disruption of a legal Philippine resupply mission to Ayungin shoal, putting the lives of Filipino service members at risk.”
The ambassador reassured its ally in the region by saying that Washington was standing by its partners to maintain an open and accessible Indo-Pacific area and to assist in defending Philippine sovereignty.
China, on its part, claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea and remains embroiled in territorial disputes with a host of other claimants, particularly the Southeast Asian countries. The encounters between Manila and Beijing have seen an uptick in recent times.
A Chinese coast guard ship and a militia vessel bumped a Philippine coast guard ship and a military-run supply boat off a contested shoal, Philippine officials said. The flare-up heightens fears of a possible conflict in the disputed South China Sea. https://t.co/s0ciHaRBnN
— The Associated Press (@AP) October 22, 2023
As support started to pour in for the Philippines, China narrated its version of the event. The Chinese Coast Guard said that the Philippine vessels “trespassed” into what it said were Chinese waters “without authorization” despite repeated radio warnings, prompting its ships to stop them. It claimed that the collisions were caused by Philippine vessels.
While the PCG contends that Philippine Coast Guard ships were traveling to deliver food and other supplies to the military outpost under a Chinese blockade, the Chinese officials have aggressively asserted that the Philippines ships carrying “illegal construction” supplies were being stopped.
Just as the incident was reported, the US State Department published a statement saying, “The United States stands with our Philippine allies in the face of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Coast Guard and maritime militia’s dangerous and unlawful actions obstructing an October 22 Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.
By conducting dangerous maneuvers that caused collisions with Philippine resupply and Coast Guard ships, the PRC Coast Guard and maritime militia violated international law by intentionally interfering with the Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation.”
The Chinese, however, were quick to hit back at the United States for what they called a “sinister plan” to support Manila’s “infringement and provocation,” Global Times reported two days ago. A spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Mao Ning, said that the US statement goes against the spirit of international law.
The Chinese have since gone so far as to say that an increased US military presence in the South China Sea has encouraged the Philippines. A report published in state-owned Global Times accused the US aircraft carrier operations in the disputed sea of encouraging Manila to carry out what it calls “provocations” in islands and reefs that it claims.
With Biden issuing a blatant warning, the situation in the region could be expected to get grimmer than it already is.