An Analysis of The Current Security Situation in The South China Sea (SCS) Based on Maritime Confrontations Between The Philippines and China

-14th March 2024-


The South China Sea is a marginal sea that is part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 square kilometres. It is also significant in political terms as more than 150 small islands, rocks, atolls, sand cays, and reefs are claimed and occupied by eight different countries. These disputes have caused widespread regional instability and are seen as a flashpoint for possible conflict. China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia all have 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the sea, but there are overlapping areas, most notably there lay claims that are shown in international law to be excessive, such as China's new map 'ten-dash line' claim in 2023.

This line was first indicated on a map from 1947 by the Nationalist Government of China, which took over from occupation by the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. As a result of winning the Chinese Civil War, the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan but retained the map and the demarcation of the line. This line, which isn't internationally recognized (heavily debited/contested by the PRC), covers the majority of the area and all the disputed territories. It was not until 2009 that this turned into a cause of tension when China filed with the United Nations the coordinates of the eleven-dash lines. This subsequently caused outrage and counterclaims from other countries with interests in the South China Sea. The claim is from a historical perspective, that the islands themselves were always Chinese. For example, the Eastern and Western Banks near the Philippines' Palawan Island used to be used by Chinese fishermen hundreds of years ago. Furthermore, ancient maps produced by the Chinese state clearly illustrate the islands as Chinese territories.

However, in recent years, several Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, have collaborated with Western experts in a bid to explore oil and gas. This had not only upset the Chinese, but it had also shed light on the fact that China had been breaching other countries' territorial waters for some time. This has led to the Philippines facing several attempts made by the Chinese to infringe upon their territory.

Philippine – China Territory Disputes

In 1995, PRC forces permanently occupied Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. The reef was at this time a rock formation which was submerged at high tide. The Philippines and other ASEAN members united to protest the action.

The Mischief Reef incident in January 1996 was the first instance of China participating in a military altercation with a Philippine ASEAN member other than Vietnam. The incident occurred in the waters near Capones Island, within the Spratly chain of islands claimed by Manila, three Chinese naval vessels engaged in a ninety-minute skirmish with a Philippine navy gunboat. The clash sparks a crisis in Sino-Philippine relations, prompting a resurgence in the US-Philippine military cooperation.

In March 1996, the US and the Philippines carried out joint military exercises on Palawan Island. Both countries denied that the operation was a reaction to the PRC's seizure of Mischief Reef. In October 1998, the Philippines Government produced photographs of PRC vessels unloading construction materials onto Mischief Reef, and Chinese workers building a large structure.

The second notable incident occurred started in early March 2011, when Chinese surveillance ships forced a Philippine vessel conducting surveys in the Reed Bank to leave the area. The Philippines recorded five naval incursions in its claimed territory by Chinese ships in the past year near the Spratly Islands and the Amy Douglas Bank, off the Coast of Palawan Island. By May 2011, Philippines President Benigno Aquino III lodged a formal protest at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, alleging that Chinese patrol boats harassed a Philippine oil surveying vessel in waters claimed by both nations.

The third incident occurred in Scarborough Shoal on 8 April 2012, after a Philippines reconnaissance plane identified Chinese fishing boats at Scarborough Reef, the Philippine Navy sent its warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar to detain or expel them. The PRC sent two unarmed vessels in response, leading to a standoff. After a series of naval and diplomatic manoeuvres from April to June 2012, both sides withdrew. In response to a spate of skirmishes with Chinese vessels, the Philippine government began referring to the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea in all official communications and in October 2012 signed an administrative order asserting its "inherent power and right to designate its maritime areas." While China renamed Scarborough Reef as Huangyan Dao.

On January 22, 2013, the Philippines took a significant step by initiating an international arbitration case under UNCLOS concerning Chinese assertions of sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. This action follows years of unsuccessful attempts to resolve the disputes. Despite China's refusal to participate, the arbitration proceeds, marking the first instance of a nation bringing a claim against China under UNCLOS regarding this matter. Responding to the Philippines' action in May 2013, the PRC sent over thirty fishing and patrol vessels to the Second Thomas Shoal, which is occupied by the Philippines. The Philippines Government asserted that this was done to intimidate their sailors and marines operating in the area.

Throughout 2014, PRC vessels harassed Philippines ships near Scarborough Shoal and Thomas Shoal. Similar altercations continued into 2015. In July 2016, The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favour of the Philippines, finding that the PRC's historic claims to sovereignty and jurisdiction over the relevant waters or features within the nine-dash line were contrary to UNCLOS, and therefore unlawful to the extent that they exceed their entitlements under UNCLOS. The PRC responded by stating that it 'neither accepts nor recognises' the court's ruling. The ROC also rejected the Court's findings.

In November 2018, President Xi Jinping visited Manila, the first state visit by a Chinese head of state to the Philippines in 13 years. Beijing and Manila agreed to maintain 'freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the SCS', and Duterte announced the establishment of a no- fishing zone and marine sanctuary at a lagoon in the contested Scarborough Shoal.

Between January to March 2019, China continued to send more than two hundred ships near the Philippines-occupied Thitu Island in the Spratly chain. In response, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte warns he will send troops on a “suicide mission” there. The Philippines had been constructing a beaching ramp on the island, which is also claimed by China, to ease the delivery of construction equipment and supplies.

In February 2020, a Chinese naval ship reportedly aimed its weapons control system at a Philippine naval ship in the Spratly Islands. The incident took place on February 17 when a People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) ship aimed its gun control director toward the Philippine Navy's (PN) anti-submarine corvette BRP Conrado Yap in the Spratly Islands.

From March 2021 to November 2022, the Philippine and China Navy had a continuous face-off. Whereby it started in March 2021, with China deploying two hundred ships to Whitsun Reef, part of the Philippines’ EEZ. While Beijing claims that the ships are a “fishing fleet,” Manila says they appear to be operated by military personnel. In November 2021, the Philippines

claimed Chinese CCG vessels fired water cannons on Philippine vessels (not indicated in the report but would assume it is a Philippine supply ship) attempting to resupply the Sierra Madre grounded on the Second Thomas Shoal.

In November 2022, with US Vice President Kamala Harris visiting the Philippines, the Philippine navy accused China's coast guard of seizing debris from a suspected Chinese rocket that landed in Philippine waters.

In January 2023 President Marco Jr. held a three-day visit to Beijing where he and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to set up direct communications between their foreign ministries on the South China Sea.

In February 2023, the Philippines accused China's coastguard of directing a "military- grade laser" at its troops living aboard an ageing warship that Manila deliberately grounded on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in 1999. Marcos summons China's ambassador.

In March 2023, The Philippines spots a Chinese navy ship (or CCG?) and 42 fishing vessels believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel in the vicinity of Thitu Island, Manila's biggest and most strategically important outpost in the South China Sea.

In August 2023 the Philippines accuses China of blocking its coast and firing water cannons at its military supply ships in Second Thomas Shoal and Manila's Aunganan Reef.

In September 2023, the Philippines accused the Chinese Coast Guard of erecting a "floating barrier" along Scarborough Shoal and denying targets to the Philippines.

In October 2023, the Philippines accused a Chinese Coast Guard ship of colliding with a ship supplying food to the Matalico Tomas II navy.

In November 2023, The Philippines called on China to dismantle all "illegal structures" built in its exclusive economic zone, stop development in the area and take responsibility for the harm caused by their actions.

In December 2023, as reported by Commodore Jay Tarriela, a spokesperson for the Philippines Coast Guard the Philippines investigated the "illegal presence" of more than 135 Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) near the Whitsunday Reef, known in Manila as Julian Felipe Reef. The Philippines also accused China of pumping water into its ships, including a ship carrying a navy chief, and sinking other ships, due to engine damage. According to the Chinese Coast Guard, a Philippine ship accidentally collided with a CCG ship.

In March 2024, the latest confrontation involved the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the CCG as the Chinese ships tried to block a resupply mission in the South China Sea. According to Jay Tarriela, the PCG spokesperson, the incident took place early on Tuesday morning near Second Thomas Shoal where a small group of sailors have been living on board the Sierra Madre warship since it was grounded nearly 25 years ago.

Philippines-China under President Marco Jr. Administration

The US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin's second visit to the Philippines on February 2, 2023, resulted in the Philippine and the US security officials announcing additional military installations in the Philippines that will house the US forces under the auspices of the 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The announcement reinforced the efforts of the Biden administration to increase the strategic presence of the United States in the "first island chain" and to oppose China's coercive measures against Taiwan and expansionist efforts against the Philippines in the SCS. On April 3, 2023, Philippine government officials announced an additional nine locations for the deployment of US troops in Northern Luzon and Palawan, strengthening its position near Taiwan and the SCS.

The strategic presence of the United States in the Philippines is typical of the renewed policy of balance of the Philippines in response to the expansion of Chinese shipping. This is similar to when the late President Benigno Aquino III pursued a similar policy to counter China's vast maritime claims in the SCS in the 2010s. Ultimately, the Aquino administration's tough balance policy toward China had a relatively modest goal: to establish a credible position for regional defence and maritime security by creating a capable force capable of defending the country's interests and securing its territories in the SCS. Aware of the AFP's limited military capabilities vis-à-vis China, the Aquino administration nevertheless strengthened security ties with the United States and entered into a security partnership with Japan.

In contrast, the renewed balanced policy of the Marcos administration towards China is more vigorous and ambitious than that of the Aquino administration. The aim is to develop the defence capabilities of the Philippine military in the archipelago by acquiring modern ships, submarines, aircraft and radar systems and promoting security relations with allies, partners and other like-minded people. In particular, the updated Philippine balanced policy includes increasing the external defence capability of the Philippine military, maintaining the alliance with the United States, increasing the strategic presence of the United States in the Philippines, promoting security agreements with other central powers, including South Korea, Japan and other countries. Australia recently adopted a national conservation strategy for the active protection of the archipelago. This new defence concept aims to protect the country's military power within the EEZ of 200 nautical miles. All these activities aim to strengthen the diplomatic and strategic position of the Philippines against China's maritime expansion in the SCS. However, it is clear that the Philippines is also preparing for another possible flashpoint in its immediate neighbour: Taiwan.

From Balanced Policy to Hard Balance

At the beginning of his six-year term, President Marcos proposed a balanced foreign policy characterized by steps to promote economic cooperation with China using the alliance with the United States. His diplomacy focused on creating a division of labour in which China would publicly invest in Philippine infrastructure development and Philippine export markets, ensuring the security of the Philippines under an expanded US security umbrella in the Indo-Pacific region. By doing so, the Philippines could reap practical benefits from its trilateral relationship with the United States and China. It also included the creation of a strategic/diplomatic space between the two superpowers through a balancing strategy developed for the Philippines.

Unfortunately, President Marcos is trying to involve the two superpowers in his diplomatic ways to balance power. It proved detrimental to China's long-term strategic goal of maritime expansion into the South China Sea. To defend its extensive sovereignty in the South China Sea, China must be able to control a large area of the sea. To achieve this control, it must be constantly close. Thus, China's maritime strategy calls for the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N), the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and its navies to pressure foreign ships in disputed waters and force regional countries like the Philippines to comply and accept Chinese jurisdiction and prerogatives in the South China Sea. China's uncompromising stance and coercive movements in the South China Sea, characterized by the number of CCG patrols in the disputed waters, have led to continued harassment of Philippine fishermen and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessels. These developments forced the Marcos administration to reform Philippine policy regarding China's expansion into the South China Sea.

New Hard Balance Policy Towards China

On December 21, 2022, President Marcos ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to have more identification and protection equipment. Finally, he said that he is looking forward to the end of 'Horizonte 3'. The renewal of the AFP is the main project to develop the Philippine Navy. In the first four months of 2023, Washington and Manila strengthened their diplomatic efforts, with five important events, including the formal announcement of four new EDCA areas, the continuation of talks for 2+2 security and the implementation of the largest project. -never set Balikatan. Exercises in May 2023 the Defense and National Security Directive clarifies the conditions under which each party can invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951 Improves cooperation between the armed forces through equipment exchanges, training and maritime patrols joint This new defence strategy aims to strengthen maritime defences by projecting the Philippines' military capabilities throughout its EEZ.

On February 6, 2024, Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Gilberto Teodoro inspected the construction activities of the Philippine Navy (PN) naval base in Mabul, the northernmost island of Batanes Island south of Taiwan. He then ordered the military to increase the number of Filipino soldiers stationed in remote islands to strengthen the Philippines' military power and regional defence position. After returning to Manila, Secretary Teodoro continued to expand the country's defence infrastructure. These developments reflect the Marcos administration's decision to return to a policy of balance as it strengthens all of the Philippines' security capabilities to protect its interests against China's expansion in the South Pacific and its misgivings about Taiwan.

China's Response to President Marcos's Policies

The Philippines has sought to revert to hard-line policies and increase presence against China's military presence in the South China Sea, which has drawn concern and anger from Beijing. In 2023, Chinese officials and media expressed high concern about the continued deterioration of Philippines-China relations, with President Marcos urging the Philippines to cooperate with the United States and defend Japan and Australia. China's first opposition to the Philippines' efforts to strengthen cooperation with the United States often ends in opposition. After the news was announced, a Chinese spokesman in Manila immediately strongly condemned the US plan to take over the base. Chinese Minister and former Politburo member Wang Yi warned President Marcos Jr. "Quickly" about his cooperation with President Xi Jinping in "managing tensions in the South China Sea."

In May 2023, Beijing criticized the remarks of Biden and Marcos. The Philippines fully agreed with the US position, opposed China's actions against Taiwan and the war in Ukraine, and supported communications security. Beijing's decision to increase the number of EDCA offices stems from concerns that the US entry into Philippine territory in northern Luzon could disrupt China's military operations in the "First Island." The base will enable the United States to support naval and maritime operations in the region, maintain maritime stability and better support Taiwan's security. Maritime areas like Manila require a strategic approach to working with the United States to keep China in the region.

The new warning comes after Secretary Theodore ordered the deployment of troops to the northern Philippine province of Bataan, 88 kilometres south of Taiwan. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin immediately warned the Philippines: "Don't be misled, don't be suppressed, and be careful not to play with fire on the Taiwan issue." He said that China- Philippines relations have always been good, and the two countries should respect each other and not interfere with each other. The warning comes amid heightened tensions between China and the Philippines and several collisions between Chinese and Filipino ships.

President Marco also congratulated the newly elected Taiwan President on his victory in the recent presidential election have created unhappiness in China over the matter. However, Marco has twisted the words to tone down the tension between the Philippines and China.

In conclusion, under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Philippines has returned to a "hard balance" policy against the PRC. Although Manila adheres to a firm "one China policy", Beijing's recent coercive measures may force the Philippines to engage in enhanced dialogue with Taiwan.

Consideration for Malaysia

China is Malaysia's largest trading partner in comparison to other countries. In addition, the China – Malaysia relationship is steep in history and with significant impact on its demography. In addition, Malaysia is also a signatory country to UNCLOS. Hence, any action that Malaysia wishes to embark on will need to be of the highest diplomacy so as not to cause any domestic disturbance or international backlash. There are a few ways that Malaysia may go about with the situation in the South China Sea.

First, the zero-sum strategic power struggle between the main claimant, China, and the most influential external stakeholder, the United States, is a major obstacle to resolving long- standing SCS disputes through UNCLOS. As China continues to strive for dominance in the SCS, all other parties must harmonize their positions, emphasizing adherence to the law of the sea as a central goal. Thus, the focus should be on the legal framework that makes US FONOPs counterproductive.

Second, an early warning system for hybrid warfare should be established to monitor both claimants and external actors in SCS disputes. This mechanism would limit the activities of all parties, reduce the risk of dangerous confrontations and gradually reduce tensions in the SCS.

Third, the current state of bilateral maritime relations between China and other claimants remains tense, mainly due to the different interpretations of UNCLOS that apply to the SCS. China often justifies hybrid warfare in the SCS with its interpretation of UNCLOS, although Beijing's main goal is apparently to make the SCS China's inland sea. Other claimants must unite to expose this hypocrisy and prevent Chinese hegemony.

Fourth, stakeholders should work together to reconcile conflicting legal claims and arrive at a mutual interpretation of UNCLOS. This approach is the only viable path to a satisfactory resolution of the future state of the SCS. Unfortunately, populist and nationalist movements have often exploited territorial claims, undermining rules-based resolutions and paving the way for quasi-military actions such as hybrid warfare. A broad legal approach makes such measures unnecessary.

Fifth, is to internally consolidate ASEAN member states (AMS) to work together when facing China especially when some of the AMS do rely on China for economic prosperity. Hence, ASEAN needs to lessen China's influence among AMS including Malaysia. However, it does not mean increasing a second power influence within AMS. This will require a paradigm shift of thinking from national to collective interest.

The latest development of Malaysia's stance on its relation with China comes after the 50th ASEAN-Australia 2024 Special Summit on 6 Mac 24 in Melbourne, Australia. The PM of Malaysia stated that,

Malaysia is a sovereign country. We should not be pressured and told to accept orders from any world power.
While we remain friends with the United States, Europe and Australia, you cannot forbid us to have relations with an important neighbour in the region, namely China.
If any country has a problem with China, they should not involve us, because Malaysia has no problem with China.

PM Anwar Ibrahim's recent statement indirectly crafted the country’s foreign policy towards China.

Although the SCS issues deeply concern the great powers, persuading China to change its behaviour seems unlikely, and the constructive role of the United States remains limited. In response to China's sanctions, all other stakeholders have a compelling interest to cooperate and express a unified position. Without such coordination, hybrid warfare will continue to be a problem in the SCS, with increased military tensions.

Prepared by:
Capt Hazlan Hazumi RMN and MS Team

Approved by:
First Admiral Dr Tay Yap Leong 13 Mac 24

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