China continues pressure on Philippines, US alliance unfazed

This year’s Balikatan military drills between the U.S. and the Philippines signified a major change. China’s response was equally significant, underscoring its defiance with an increased vessel presence in Manila’s western exclusive economic zone and a violent incident at a disputed reef. These actions heightened tensions and questioned the deterrent value of the exercises. The situation indicates a stiffening of stances, a greater acceptance of risk, and a reduction in diplomatic opportunities.

The 39th Balikatan exercise, the most ambitious and complex yet, built upon the advancements of previous drills. In 2022, U.S. Patriot missiles were stationed in Cagayan, a Philippine province close to Taiwan. The subsequent year witnessed live-fire tests of Patriot and Avenger missiles in Zambales, a province fronting the West Philippine Sea. A unique sinking exercise was also carried out, with a decommissioned corvette as the target, off Zambales, near the contested Scarborough Shoal.

This year, the Typhon missile, boasting a range of 1600 kilometres, made its debut in a joint army exercise preceding Balikatan. For the first time, Patriot missile launchers were deployed at Clark, a former U.S. airbase in Luzon. The enduring presence of Typhon missiles at secret locations post-exercise has sparked conjecture about their permanent stationing in the country. It’s uncertain if these arms will be permanently positioned at sites agreed under the Philippines-U.S. Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Last year saw an expansion of EDCA bases from five to nine, with additional locations in northern Luzon and southern Palawan.

If these weapons are permanently stationed, it raises the question of whether China’s reaction will echo its response to South Korea’s deployment of U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missiles. This could further strain Manila’s already tense relationship with its large neighbour and main trading partner. Beijing voiced strong opposition to the missile deployment. PRC Defence Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian cautioned that it “brought substantial risks of war to the region,” highlighting that “intermediate-range missiles are strategic, offensive weapons with a clear Cold War tinge.”

The recent Balikatan exercises have seen a heightened focus on external defence and multi-domain operations. This year’s drills included island defence and recapture, air and missile defence, as well as cyber security and information operations. The Philippine Coast Guard, which is often at the forefront of confrontations with an increasingly assertive China, participated for the first time. US HIMARS rockets were launched in Palawan, a province on the front lines of the South China Sea. A sinking exercise (SINKEX) was carried out in IlocosNorte, the home province of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., with a former Chinese naval tanker as the target, sparking speculation despite claims of coincidence.

For the first time, maritime operations extended beyond the country’s 12-nautical-mile territorial waters. France, aspiring to provide Manila with submarines, sent a frigate to join Filipino and American forces sailing from the Sulu Sea to the South China Sea. This marked Paris’s debut. Fourteen nations, including South China Sea coastal states like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, participated as observers.

Manila’s extraordinary actions were countered by Beijing’s audacious steps. Chinese vessels, both governmental and militia, were observed near Philippine positions in the South China Sea. This included three Chinese maritime research vessels in the Second Thomas Shoal, a recent area of contention between the two nations. Another vessel was spotted off Catanduanes and Samar, far to the east facing the Pacific Ocean. Four Chinese PLA Navy vessels alternated in shadowing an allied fleet of four ships – two Philippine, one American, and one French – conducting joint maritime exercises in the South China Sea.

During the Balikatan exercises, a fresh incident occurred at Scarborough Shoal. Two Philippine government vessels were damaged by ramming and water cannons from three Chinese Coast Guard ships. This followed a March incident where a Philippine civilian boat, hired by the military, was subjected to high-pressure water blasting by two Chinese coast guard ships. Hopes that Balikatan, bolstered by the presence of foreign navies, would encourage China to act responsibly and refrain from assertive actions were dashed. The recent sea incident drew international condemnation. However, China’s defiance, despite violating international law and damaging its reputation, sent a clear message: The enhanced exercise no longer deters Beijing, nor does Manila’s efforts to promote transparency in the disputed sea.

Could these events prompt the alliance to adjust its response? Despite injuries and property damage, China’s actions don’t constitute an “armed attack” that would invoke U.S. commitments to its ally. The Scarborough Shoal incident might embolden China to push boundaries further. This, in turn, could undermine confidence in the alliance’s capacity to respond beyond mere verbal condemnations. An enhanced Balikatan forms part of the Philippines’ strategy to strengthen defence ties with the U.S. and other allies to counter China. Unsatisfactory outcomes could necessitate a strategy reassessment. This could align with China’s aim to weaken Manila’s longstanding alliance with its former colonizer and exclude non-regional powers from the complex maritime dispute.

Despite the risks and close calls, disputants continue to tolerate the situation. Manila persists in revealing China’s activities in disputed waters and participating in joint operations with allies. Diplomatic protests are accumulating, with no anticipated high-level talks with Beijing. Contrastingly, American and Chinese defense leaders met at this year’s Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, marking the first meeting since 2022. This is part of a series of high-level engagements aimed at stabilizing relations between the two adversaries as the U.S. approaches its end-of-year elections. In April, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken made back-to-back visits to China, with Blinken’s trip coinciding with the start of Balikatan. The South China Sea is just one of numerous contentious issues between the two superpowers, and it may not be the most urgent. Despite this, Beijing continues to exert pressure on its smaller neighbour, even in the face of its powerful ally. If China’s reaction to this year’s Balikatan indicates the boundaries of deterrence, the South China Sea could experience increased instability.