Home / Articles / How Is the Philippines Preparing for Conflict in the South China Sea?
The return of US troops to the Philippines earlier this year signals a new level of long-standing tension between Manila and Beijing over the South China Sea.
This heightened tension in the South China Sea might be a precursor to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a conflict that would prove incredibly damaging to the Philippines and other nations in the Indo-Pacific in addition to Taiwan.
The Philippines is not backing down from defending its territory, despite significant risks to the country if China continues to flex its military might by building infrastructure in the South China Sea.
On February 2, 2023, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III announcedthe temporary return of American troops to four new military bases in the Philippines, restarting a military presence there that has been dormant for thirty years. These four new bases are concentrated on the island of Luzon in the north and Palawan in the west, augmenting five original sites across the Philippines. This decision, which strengthened the US presence in the Indo-Pacific, marked a new level of action against China as it continues aggressive maritime pursuits in the South China Sea. With this threat in mind, the US is reaffirming its strong ties with the Philippines due to its geographic position, despite the previous Duterte administration’s alignment with China. The Philippines’ strategic location cannot be overstated; with its northernmost inhabited point only 93 miles from Taiwan and its Western coast bordering the South China Sea, the Philippines is at the center of a theater of China’s influence. Thus, the re-entry of US troops onto Filipino bases signals a new stage of US preparation for countering China, but not without significant impacts on the Philippines.
When US troops last left the Philippines in 1992, many Filipinos treated it as a celebratory end to a colonial-esque occupation. However, the Philippines is now cognizant of the increasing threat of China, with the current president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. accepting this temporary return of US troops to Filipino military bases and steering US-Philippines relations back to their previous strength. One month after Marcos allowed US troops to reoccupy bases, his approval ratings stood at 78%, demonstrating solid support among Filipinos. On the other hand, some left-wing political groups are protesting Marcos’ recent closeness with the US, especially after his recent meeting with President Biden in May. Nevertheless, Filipinos by and large seem to understand the need for Marcos’ actions in light of the significant history and magnitude of the tensions with China.
Manila sidling up to the United States military is a response to a mounting conflict with a long history. The PRC made its first official claim in the South China Sea in 1947, and it has disputed neighbors’ claims ever since. For the past decade, China has been building military infrastructure on small islands, atolls, and reefs in the sea, including runways, ports, and radar facilities. This infrastructure interferes with fishing, trading, and land protection of other countries. Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan also dispute China over its various territorial claims in the sea.
Notably, the Philippines institutedarbitral proceedings with the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in 2016, arguing that China’s actions violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. After the court ruled in the Philippines’ favor, China called the decision “illegal, null, and void” and continued to occupy the islands. Despite this blatant disregard for Philippine sovereignty, President Rodrigo Duterte still valued China as a trading partner and strengthened diplomatic relations, signaling a prioritization of economic opportunities rather than a continued fight with a much stronger neighbor over these small islands. However, the consequences are now being felt by the Filipino fishermen who face greater competition with Chinese fleets and declining incomes. They saythat Duterte’s failure to adequately contest Beijing’s rejection of the ruling caused their current plight and the increasing tensions between China, the Philippines, and the United States.
China’s construction projects in the South China Sea have acutely harmed the Philippines’ economy. The sea is rich in natural resources and the abundant marine life, especially in areas such as Scarborough Shoal,is of significant value to the Filipino fishing industry. Chinese building, such as pumping sediment from the seafloor to form new islands, significantly damages marine life and blocks Filipino fishing vessels. China is unfazed by the fact that the islands it has taken over lie in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, the area of its surrounding waters where the Philippines has jurisdiction over resources.
China is not occupying and building infrastructure on the islands in the South China Sea simply to deter other countries from claiming them. The building campaigns are most likely forms of preparation for action against Taiwan, which Beijing describesas a “renegade province.” Taiwan has governed independently since 1949, but China “vowsto eventually unify Taiwan,” a move that US officialswarnmay occur in the next few years by military invasion or a complete blockade of the Taiwan Strait. China’s conduct nearby, including the firing of ballistic missiles over Taiwanese airspace and close calls with American and British ships in the surrounding seas, suggest that such an invasion may be approaching.
By virtue of the Philippines’ location, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would greatly impact the Philippines. War would cause significant issues such as an influx of Taiwanese refugees and overseas foreign workers, and the prospect of armed conflict spreading to Philippine waters and soil. Furthermore, America’s occupation of Filipino bases brings potential war even closer to Filipinos, who want no part of a great-power war.
Chinese officials believe that the United States has been “ganging up” on China ever since their endorsement of the 2016 Court of Arbitration case, and now even more so with their military presence in the Philippines. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning criticizedthe February return of US troops to the Philippines: “Out of self-interest, the United States continues to strengthen its military deployment in the region with a zero-sum mentality, which is exacerbating tension in the region and endangering regional peace and stability. … Countries in the region should remain vigilant against this and avoid being coerced and used by the United States.”
Under current President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the Philippines has not lain helpless to China’s advances on islands they deem to be their own. In fact, the Philippines’ recent effortsto occupy Ren’ai reef, a tiny islet near the Spratly Islands, were “slammed” by China, saying “the Philippines’ actions seriously infringe upon China’s sovereignty, violate its own commitments, and go against international law and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed between China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.” This statement, released by a spokesperson from the China Coast Guard on August 8, shows that the conflict in the South China Sea remains hot, and that the Philippines is committed to defending its territory.
Furthermore, on September 25, the Philippine Coast Guard removed a Chinese floating barrier blocking the entrance to Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, in a clear act of opposition to Chinese territorial claims in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The Coast Guard said in a statement, “The barrier posed a hazard to navigation, a clear violation of international law … It also hinders the conduct of fishing and livelihood activities of Filipino fisherfolk.”
Ultimately, the Philippines is one of many countries in the Indo-Pacific that are being forced to reckon with US-China conflict. No one, leaders and citizens alike, wants to choose a side, but Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasingly aggressive behavior has forced the Philippines to do so. After the PRC-friendly Duterte administration, the new Marcos government revitalized its historic relationship with the United States, recognizing that hosting American troops is a meaningful step toward protecting Philippine sovereignty and promoting deterrence in the South China Sea. Furthermore, it is also crucial for American interests to protect regional stability and prevent a war with China by keeping a presence in the Philippines. However, the effectiveness of this deterrence is unclear given Xi’s increasingly threatening foreign policy actions and bold ambitions to reclaim Taiwan before the end of his tenure, so it is more important than ever for a muscular US-Philippines relationship.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.