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The Philippines-China Dispute and America’s Litmus Test

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The Philippines-China dispute

The Philippines-China dispute is a long-standing territorial conflict over the ownership of various islands, reefs, and shoals in the South China Sea. China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a vast maritime area rich in natural resources and vital for international shipping, based on its so-called “nine-dash line.” This sweeping claim overlaps with the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of several Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The Philippines has a more modest claim, asserting sovereignty over a smaller group of islands and reefs within its EEZ and rejecting China’s nine-dash line. In 2012, a tense standoff occurred between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, a small, uninhabited reef within the Philippines’ EEZ. The incident highlighted the potential for conflict in the region and prompted the Philippines to file an arbitration case against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In a landmark ruling in 2016, the arbitral tribunal invalidated China’s nine-dash line claim and upheld the Philippines’ rights within its EEZ. However, China has refused to abide by the ruling, maintaining its expansive claims and continuing to militarize the disputed waters.

The Philippines-China dispute remains a simmering source of tension in the region, with frequent incidents of Chinese ships intruding into Philippine waters and engaging in provocative actions. The dispute has also become a major flashpoint in US-China rivalry, with the US asserting its right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and conducting regular military patrols in the area.

Overlapping territorial claims and resource disputes have fueled longstanding tensions between the Philippines and China, particularly in the South China Sea. These tensions have manifested in a series of incidents, including: Mischief Reef incident (1995): Chinese forces seized control of Mischief Reef, a submerged feature in the Spratly Islands, sparking a standoff with the Philippines. Scarborough Shoal standoff (2012): Chinese vessels blocked Philippine ships from accessing Scarborough Shoal, another disputed feature in the South China Sea, leading to a months-long standoff. Arbitration ruling (2016): The Philippines initiated an arbitration case against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), challenging China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea. The tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, but China refused to abide by the ruling.

Incursions into Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ): Chinese fishing and coast guard vessels have repeatedly intruded into the Philippines’ EEZ, prompting diplomatic protests and warnings from Manila. 2023 resupply incident: The Philippine Navy attempted to resupply its troops stationed on a grounded warship at the Second Thomas Shoal, but Chinese Coast Guard vessels reportedly blocked the supply boats, raising concerns about the potential for further escalation.

The ongoing tensions between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea set the stage for America’s involvement in several ways. Strategic interests: The South China Sea is a vital shipping lane and is believed to hold significant oil and natural gas reserves. The United States has a strong interest in maintaining freedom of navigation and ensuring that no single country dominates the region. Security alliance: The United States has a Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines, which obligates it to come to the defense of the Philippines if it is attacked. This treaty has been invoked in the past, such as during the Hukbalahap Rebellion in the 1950s.

Regional stability: The United States sees China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea as a threat to regional stability. The United States has conducted freedom of navigation operations in the region to challenge China’s territorial claims and deter its aggression. Countering China’s influence: The United States is also concerned about China’s growing influence in the region. The Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure investment project, is seen as a way for China to expand its economic and political influence in Asia. The United States has sought to counter this by strengthening its ties with other countries in the region, such as India and Vietnam.

In addition to these factors, the United States has a long history of involvement in the Asia-Pacific region. The United States is committed to maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” which means ensuring that the region is open to trade and investment and that no single country dominates. The South China Sea is a key part of this strategy.

As the tensions between the Philippines and China continue to rise, the United States is likely to play an increasingly active role in the region. The United States is already providing military assistance to the Philippines and has increased its naval presence in the South China Sea. It is also considering conducting joint military exercises with the Philippines and other countries in the region.

The United States and the Philippines have a long and complex history, marked by both cooperation and conflict. The two countries first established diplomatic relations in 1946, following the Philippines’ independence from the United States.

The United States gained control of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Philippine-American War (1899-1902) ensued, as Filipino revolutionaries fought for independence from the United States. The war resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. The United States ruled the Philippines as a colony for 48 years. During this time, the United States built infrastructure, established schools, and introduced American culture to the Philippines. However, American rule was also marked by economic exploitation and political repression. The Philippines gained independence from the United States in 1946. The two countries signed the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951, which committed the United States to defend the Philippines in the event of an attack. The United States has played a significant role in the Philippines’ development since independence. The United States has provided economic assistance, military aid, and technical assistance to the Philippines. The United States is also a major trading partner of the Philippines.

U.S.-Philippines relations have been strained at times, particularly during the Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986). However, the two countries have generally maintained a close relationship.

China’s claim over the vast expanse of the South China Sea, justified by historical assertions and the contentious nine-dash line map, intersects with the territorial claims of nations like Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. Beijing’s actions have accentuated tensions by aggressively reclaiming land, militarizing disputed islands, and routinely conducting military drills in the region, prompting concerns of potential conflict. China’s position centers on historical sovereignty, citing ancient control over the area, and upholding the controversial nine-dash line despite a 2016 UNCLOS tribunal ruling that invalidated its claims. The nation’s militarization efforts in the South China Sea further underscore its assertiveness.

This dispute hasn’t remained isolated, drawing in several international players. The United States, a key regional power, has contested China’s expansive claims through freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) to uphold the right to navigate international waters. ASEAN has attempted to mitigate tensions through consensus-building and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Japan, aligned closely with the U.S., has voiced concerns and amplified security cooperation with Southeast Asian nations. The European Union advocates for a resolution based on international law, while Australia, part of the Quad alliance, shares apprehensions about China’s militarization efforts in the South China Sea, amplifying the global dimensions of this regional standoff.

The Philippines has pursued legal avenues within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to challenge China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. Initiating an arbitration case in 2013, the Philippines secured a significant victory in 2016 when the tribunal ruled in its favor, invalidating China’s claims based on the nine-dash line and affirming the Philippines’ rights within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Anchored in UNCLOS principles, the Philippines argued its status as an archipelagic state, securing rights to delineate waters and an EEZ, along with continental shelf rights. However, China adamantly rejected the arbitration ruling, dismissing its jurisdiction and contesting the applicability of UNCLOS to territorial disputes. Beijing has consistently emphasized historical sovereignty, maintaining its claims based on ancient maps and usage.

Despite the legal precedent set by UNCLOS and the tribunal’s ruling, China’s response has remained steadfast in its refusal to engage in substantive negotiations, amplifying tensions with the Philippines and neighboring Southeast Asian nations. While international law, particularly UNCLOS, has framed the dispute and provided a legal basis for contesting China’s claims, its effectiveness has been constrained by China’s non-compliance and military assertiveness in the region, eroding the credibility of international law as a resolution mechanism.

In response, the United States has taken a firm stand against China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. Conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) to safeguard freedom of navigation, the U.S. has also extended military aid to the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations. Engaging diplomatically through ASEAN-led initiatives, the U.S. aims to counter China’s influence and maintain regional stability. However, while actively promoting its interests in ensuring the rules-based international order, the U.S. treads cautiously, avoiding direct military confrontation but emphasizing the importance of upholding international norms and safeguarding its interests in the region.

The multifaceted conflict between the Philippines and China over the South China Sea, characterized by overlapping territorial claims, historical disputes, and differing interpretations of international law, has drawn global attention due to its significant geopolitical implications. China’s aggressive stance, driven by historical assertions and its contentious nine-dash line, clashes with the Philippines’ pursuit of legal recourse under UNCLOS, resulting in a standoff marked by tensions, incidents, and China’s refusal to abide by the 2016 arbitration ruling. This volatile situation has amplified regional tensions, drawing in international players like the United States, whose strategic interests in ensuring freedom of navigation, regional stability, and countering China’s influence have prompted active involvement, albeit cautiously. The ongoing complexities of this dispute underscore the challenges of balancing national interests, upholding international law, and preventing escalation in a highly contested and vital maritime region.

Ammarah Munib
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Ammarah is Mass Communication student at the National University of Modern Languages.

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