Collision Crisis in the South China Sea Yet to be Covered by the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty

Release Date : 2023-10-25

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on October 22nd that, without China’s permission, two civil and two coast guard vessels of the Philippines went headstrong toward Ren'ai Jiao’s lagoon (Second Thomas Shoal is also known as Ren’ai Jiao) and bumped dangerously with the China Coast Guard (CCG) ships conducting law enforcement on the scene and the Chinese fishing vessels having normal fishing activities there.

In response to the two ship collisions, China and the Philippines accused the other side of deliberately provoking and changing course. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. convened a national security meeting. Assistant Director General of the National Security Council Jonathan Malaya warned that China efforts to continuously block Manila’s resupply operations in the South China Sea could have "disastrous results."

The U.S., EU, Canada and Japan successively condemned the dangerous blocking maneuvers of the CCG and maritime militia in the South China Sea. The U.S. State Department promptly issued a statement on October 22nd, saying that the actions of the CCG and maritime militia were “dangerous and unlawful.” The U.S. statement cited the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal ruling, reiterating that Second Thomas Shoal is located within the Philippine exclusive economic zone and on the Philippine continental shelf, and China's territorial claims to it are unfounded.

This incident has two aspects worth observation. First, China took the initiative to release a video with responses from the CCG and its Foreign Ministry press release, showing that China has accumulated the experience of handling such incidents over the past few months and hoped to regain the initiative in terms of forefront information concerning the South China Sea. Second, the two sides were discreet. The Philippine Navy commissioned resupply ship collided with the CCG vessel, while the Chinese maritime militia ship was rammed by the Philippine Coast Guard.

This article aims to analyze the strategic goals of the two sides in this incident.

First, what are the strategic goals of the Philippines? Over the past few months, the Philippines has seized the initiative to release information, paving the way for public opinion to be concerned about the escalation of conflict in the South China Sea. When heading south toward the Philippine base on Commodore Reef to carry out regular personnel rotation and resupply missions on October 13th, the Philippine Navy landing ship BRP Benguet (LS-507) was tracked by the Chinese Navy's Type-056A corvette Panzhihua (pennant number 621).

The Philippine side alleged that the Panzhihua, in a blatant violation of the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREG), tried to cross the bow of the Philippine ship at a close distance of only 350 yards (about 320 kilometers).

Breaking the blockade of China's Great Wall at sea has been viewed by the Philippine military as an important task since a CCG ship fired a water cannon to stop a Philippine boat from resupplying Second Thomas Shoal on August 9thThe Philippine military said it breached a Chinese coast guard blockade and completed a resupply mission at Second Thomas Shoal on October 4th. The Philippines stated that a 300-meter floating barrier installed by China at Scarborough Shoal to prevent Filipino fishermen from fishing in the area was removed by the Philippine Coast Guard on September 24th.

Judging from a series of recent incidents, Manila’s goal is to force Washington to take action or send ships to Second Thomas Shoal to escort Philippine vessels. The Philippines believes that now is the time for the United States to do something in return. Manila has been urging the U.S. to explicitly state that their bilateral mutual defense treaty extends to islands and reefs administered by the Philippines like Second Thomas Shoal and Scarborough Shoal since the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's visit to the Philippine Department of Defense Headquarters in Quezon City on February 2nd this year, and the Philippines granted the U.S. access to four more military bases.

But the U.S. so far has only reaffirmed that the “US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty” extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels and aircraft - including those of its Coast Guard - anywhere in the South China Sea. Under Article V of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, 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 on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean. However, the treaty does not explicitly define whether it extends to the South China Sea. In other words, the mutual defense treaty can only be activated if there is an armed attack on Philippine official vessels. This is the bottom line that the three parties can manage and control.

As for China's strategic goals, apart from calling on the Philippines to adhere to its previous principle of good faith and take the initiative to resolve the issue of the grounded warship at Second Thomas Shoal, China also opposes the double standard of the U.S. in citing international law. China hopes to counter the support for legally binding 2016 arbitral ruling on the South China Sea through high-profile and functional maritime operations. Without crossing the threshold of armed conflict, China maximizes its administration of disputed waters in the South China Sea and uses maritime militia vessels. This constitutes the fact being criticized by the U.S. and the Philippines that China undermines the existing rules-based international order through ambiguity and threats. 

On October 7th1960, during the second round of the U.S. presidential debate, ABC reporter Edward Morgan asked whether the U.S. defense line in the Far East should extend to Kinmen and Matsu. This triggered heated contestation between the two presidential candidates with different positions. Kennedy believed that the goal of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty was to defend Taiwan and Penghu, while Kimen and Matsu were strategically indefensible and should not be included within the scope of defense defined by the treaty. Nixon refuted Kennedy’s remarks and said that abandoning Kimen and Matsu constituted abandoning the area of freedom, and it was a soft and weak thinking. After more than 60 years, the U.S. seems to face a similar defense dilemma again. And the U.S. still holds the same position as it did back then. It does not really want to get involved in a war between its allies and China.

(Weihua Chen, Associate Professor of the Department of Public Security at Central Police University)


(Translated to English by Cindy Li)