The Platform

Michael Russell/U.S. Navy

The Philippines, with U.S. support, condemns China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea and emphasizes the importance of upholding international norms amid rising regional tensions.

As China continues to assert its influence in the contested waters of the South China Sea, Philippine President Bongbong Marcos has underscored the critical role of the United States in maintaining regional peace. Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Marcos argued that the U.S. presence is crucial as his country, along with other Southeast Asian nations, confronts escalating Chinese pressure in their territorial waters.

Marcos articulated a vision shared by many in the region: a commitment to “peace, stability, and prosperity” in the South China Sea. However, he emphasized that this vision is increasingly threatened by coercive and deceptive actions that undermine sovereign rights in the contested zones. By condemning China’s actions as dangerous and destabilizing, and highlighting the stabilizing influence of the U.S., Marcos signaled that Manila is committed to aligning with international norms and supporting a resilient regional security framework. This stance sends a clear message to Beijing that the Philippines will continue to contribute to shaping a robust regional security response.

Marcos’ remarks underscore the global significance of security in the South China Sea. He framed the issue not just as a matter of defending Manila’s sovereignty but as a broader challenge to the rules-based international maritime order. China’s actions, which have included incidents resulting in injuries to Filipino sailors, are perceived as threatening the entire international norms governing the seas.

The Philippines remains a strategic partner for the U.S., a relationship strengthened by its geographical significance and recent military cooperation. The establishment of additional military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) allows U.S. troops to rotate through the Philippines and store defense equipment, reinforcing their presence in the region and showcasing the depth of this strategic partnership.

The Shangri-La Dialogue highlighted growing tensions, exposing the stark differences in perspectives between China and the U.S., and how regional powers interpret these dynamics. China has accused the U.S. of using the Philippines to provoke conflict in the South China Sea. For the U.S., this is part of a broader strategy to strengthen regional alliances, such as the Quad and the newly formed AUKUS, through bilateral defense diplomacy with allies like Japan, thereby expanding its influence and countering China’s assertiveness.

Despite U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to China, aimed at fostering mutual understanding, Beijing’s subsequent actions—including hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin and conducting punitive drills around Taiwan following President Lai Ching Te’s inauguration—sent a clear rebuke to the U.S. The systemic rivalry between the two superpowers was starkly evident at the Shangri-La Dialogue, which underscored the enduring nature of this geopolitical tension.

In Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu met on the sidelines of the summit, marking the first such meeting in 18 months. While Austin emphasized the importance of freedom of navigation under international law, Li accused the U.S. of exacerbating regional tensions through its military presence. The discussions highlighted the persistent security dilemmas, with little hope for immediate resolution despite agreements to reopen hotlines to prevent conflicts from escalating.

The timing of the Dialogue was particularly precarious, coinciding with China’s extensive military drills around Taiwan and increased coercive actions in the South China Sea. Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng responded to Austin’s call for peaceful dispute resolution by accusing the U.S. of betraying its commitments and undermining the “one-China” policy, portraying Taiwan’s new leader, Lai Ching Te, as pushing the island towards disaster. These remarks, along with those of other high-ranking Chinese military officials, painted a picture of Beijing’s readiness for potential conflict over Taiwan.

The drills around the island were described as “rehearsals” for combat operations, aimed at familiarizing Chinese forces with the battlefield and enhancing their coordination and command capabilities. Beijing made it clear that while it does not desire U.S. involvement in a Taiwan Strait conflict, it is prepared to respond decisively if necessary. China’s exercises were also characterized as punitive measures against “Taiwan separatists” and a warning to foreign powers against interference. The PLA accused the U.S. of attempting to create an Asia-Pacific version of NATO to maintain its hegemony in the region. Austin, meanwhile, reiterated that Taiwan’s political transition should not be used by China as a pretext for coercion, reaffirming the U.S. stance on this issue.

Despite efforts by both Beijing and Washington to reestablish norms and prevent conflict escalation, deep-rooted disagreements and misalignments on key issues persist. U.S. President Joe Biden has consistently framed the U.S.-China relationship as one of intense competition, aiming to avoid conflict. However, real-world dynamics make it difficult to confine this rivalry to mere competition, reflecting the complexity of the current geopolitical landscape.

Analysts suggest that the People’s Liberation Army’s recent drills around Taiwan were premeditated. While Beijing presents them as a response to President Lai’s remarks, they also serve as a pretext for demonstrating military readiness and testing U.S. and Taiwanese responses. New tactics in these exercises, such as deploying coast guard ships around Taiwan’s outlying islands and encroaching on Taiwan’s territorial waters, blur the lines between civilian and military objectives, showcasing a more aggressive stance from Beijing.

The opposition Kuomintang, traditionally seen as pro-China, has called for Beijing to restrain itself and condemned actions that threaten regional stability. They have voiced support for the Taiwanese government’s efforts to safeguard national interests and maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait, highlighting the complex internal dynamics within Taiwan in response to Chinese actions.

Observers have noted the timing of China’s drills, which were conducted during Lai’s inauguration, contrasting with the lack of similar actions during previous administrations. The drills following former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan set a precedent, seemingly allowing Beijing to push the boundaries further without a significant U.S. response. This has given Beijing a perceived advantage in setting new norms in the region.

As China employs new tactics to expand its regional influence, the resulting security dilemmas have sparked arms races and systemic anxieties among neighboring countries. These developments underscore the growing desire for a return to a stable, rules-based international order and the rule of law, reflecting the broader implications of China’s actions in the Indo-Pacific region.

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.