The Latest on Southeast Asia: Continued Tensions in the South China Sea

Tensions between the Philippines and China have continued to escalate over the last few months in the face of increasingly aggressive Chinese behavior against Philippine servicemen and civilians in disputed regions of the South China Sea. The BRP Sierra Madre, deliberately grounded in the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999, is a critical outpost for Philippine forces in the area. The rapidly decaying ship is in constant need of resupply missions, and the Philippine government’s efforts to support its garrison there have created increasingly dangerous confrontations between the two countries.

In the latest incident on June 17, a Chinese vessel rammed and boarded a Philippine rotation and resupply mission to the Sierra Madre. China Coast Guard (CCG) personnel boarded the resupply crafts, confiscated seven rifles, and destroyed onboard communications and navigation devices. After deploying tear gas, blaring sirens, and strobe lights, Chinese sailors, equipped with bladed weapons, overpowered the Philippine resupply mission, injuring eight Filipino sailors. This comes shortly after the Chinese government announced that it would direct its coast guard to employ lethal force against foreign ships found in what it considers its territorial waters and hold trespassers for up to 60 days.

U.S. deputy secretary of state Kurt Campbell spoke with his Philippine counterpart, Maria Theresa Lazaro, to discuss their shared concerns over the incident and reaffirm the United States’ commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Since the incident, both the Philippines and China have shared differing narratives—China, for instance, claims that aggressive Filipino incursions and clandestine efforts to bring construction supplies to the BRP Sierra Madre forced its hand.

Gravely concerned with ongoing threats to its territorial integrity, the Philippine government under President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. has worked to improve the country’s military alliances and partnerships with like-minded nations to protect Philippine interests. Under Marcos Jr., the Philippines granted the United States access to four additional sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2023. In addition, the Philippines has worked to build upon its partnerships with other regional allies. President Marcos Jr.’s overtures to Japan, for instance, have yielded significant progress in the Philippines-Japan defense relationship, from patrol ship acquisitions for the Philippine Coast Guard to negotiations on a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) between the two countries. The RAA would allow the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Japan Self-Defense Forces to train in each other’s territory. Philippine defense secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. announced that the RAA would likely be finalized in July, at a planned meeting between the heads of Philippines’ and Japan’s defense and foreign affairs departments, respectively. 

The Philippines is also shoring up its relationship with New Zealand. In a visit to the Philippines on June 10, New Zealand deputy prime minister and foreign minister Winston Peters and Philippine foreign secretary Enrique Manalo announced the two countries’ intentions to promulgate a Visiting Forces Agreement this year. The two countries also signed a Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement (MLSA) to strengthen defense and security cooperation. 

Japhet Quitzon is a Research Associate for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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