The Latest on Southeast Asia: October 26, 2023

On October 19, the U.S. Department of Defense released its annual report on military and security developments involving China. The report highlighted the rising risk of escalation in the South and East China Seas due to unsafe behavior by Chinese aircraft and vessels targeting the United States and its allies and partners. U.S. officials are particularly worried about a rapid increase in the frequency of unsafe intercepts of U.S., Australian, Canadian, and other aircraft in international airspace. Ahead of the report’s release, Assistant Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner told the press the United States has since late 2021 documented “nearly 200 cases where PLA [People’s Liberation Army] operators have performed reckless maneuvers or discharged chaff, or shot off flares, or approached too rapidly or too close to U.S. aircraft…and when you take into account cases of coercive and risky PLA intercepts against other states, the number increases to nearly 300 cases over the last two years.”

Just three days later, Philippine and Chinese vessels collided in two separate incidents near Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands. During a resupply mission to the grounded BRP Sierra Madre, a Philippine supply boat collided with a China Coast Guard ship blocking its path. Additionally, a Chinese maritime militia vessel “bumped” a Philippine Coast Guard ship. Fortunately, neither side incurred significant damages or injuries. The Sierra Madre, grounded on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999, is a major stressor in Philippines-China tensions. China made numerous threats to pull the ship off the shoal, all while blocking Philippine attempts to resupply its sailors stationed there. The incidents of October 22 follow increased escalation from Chinese vessels, including incidents involving water cannons and lasers to block Philippine vessels.

Since the incidents, both Philippine and Chinese officials placed the blame on each other. Philippine officials summoned the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines and filed the country’s 55th official diplomatic protest against China this year. Under the direction of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Philippine Coast Guard launched a probe investigating the actions of the China Coast Guard that led to the collision, citing “dangerous, illegal, and reckless maneuvers by vessels of the China Coast Guard.” Conversely, China accused Philippine vessels of trespassing and maintained legal justification for the actions taken by the China Coast Guard.

The U.S. Department of State, released a statement supporting the Philippines. Citing previous incidents such as the water cannoning of Philippine vessels, the United States emphasized the lack of legal basis for China’s claims to Second Thomas Shoal and reaffirmed its commitment to the Philippines under Article IV of the Mutual Defense Treaty.

The intensification of the China Coast Guard’s attempts to block resupply missions to the Sierra Madre comes as the Philippines doubles its efforts to repair and reinforce the ailing ship-turned-outpost. The squalid conditions experienced by its detachment are exacerbated by supply shortages in the face of more frequent Chinese harassment. Recently, lawmakers pushed to reroute civilian confidential funds toward funding the Philippines’ maritime security capability in the region. The incidents have also pushed lawmakers to seek an accelerated timeline to pass the country’s mooted maritime zones and archipelagic sea lanes bills.

Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Japhet Quitzon is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative