“In the Shadow of Rising Tensions: Will the West Philippine Sea Erupt into Conflict?”
By Richard Rivera
The West Philippine Sea has become a theater of heightened tensions, prompting analysts to contemplate the unsettling possibility of armed conflict. The recent discovery of a massive 300-meter plastic buoy near the Scarborough Shoal by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has contributed to the unease. Chinese authorities issued stern warnings to the Philippines, urging them not to interfere with the buoy. However, the Philippines maintains its resolve, asserting that the shoal lies within its exclusive economic zone—a territory that has been part of the nation’s heritage since long before the Spanish colonial era.
Several nations have expressed their concerns regarding China’s actions, deeming them “unfortunate,” “disturbing,” and “alarming.” Notably, these recent Chinese maneuvers have reverberated within Philippine politics, with prominent political leaders vehemently opposing China’s perceived bullying tactics. Some political analysts have even proposed that the Philippines should maintain a state of preparedness for potential conflict, recognizing China’s strategy of utilizing local actors to sow discord among Filipinos. Much like the situation in Taiwan, the West Philippine Sea has evolved into an issue of utmost sensitivity among Filipinos, with over 70% of them expressing a desire to strengthen relations with China’s rival, the United States—a nation viewed as militarily superior to its East Asian counterpart. In some quarters, China’s actions are being compared to acts of war.
The lingering question remains: Is China poised to escalate its confrontational behavior to trigger a war with the Philippines?
To address this inquiry, it is imperative to construct a theoretical framework for comprehending the West Philippine Sea situation. Grounded in Bakhtin’s analytical perspective, it is incumbent upon us to methodically deconstruct the historical layers of contextual significance that have evolved in shaping our contemporary understanding of the West Philippine Sea. This analysis necessitates the acknowledgment that the prevailing tableau encompassing the “West Philippine Sea” is essentially a dialectical construct engendered through the intricate interplay of two primary dimensions: the bilateral dynamics involving the Philippines and China, and the overarching context of great power rivalry between China and the United States. It is noteworthy that both dimensions exert considerable influence upon one another, to the extent that imbalances within bilateral relations are often counterpoised by the dynamics of the larger arena of great power competition. Consequently, when the great power rivalry intensifies, it frequently exerts a consequential impact on the bilateral realm, particularly considering the relatively diminutive influence wielded by the moderating entity, namely, the Philippines. This divergence underscores the distinction between the West Philippine Sea situation and that of the Taiwan Straits, wherein the dynamics of bilateral interactions can be conveniently isolated to yield solutions that are distinctly contingent upon the broader context of great power competition between Beijing and Washington.
A historical overview reveals that the disputes over the Spratly Islands only gained significant traction when China surpassed the Philippines economically in the 1980s. In the 1960s, when the Philippines initially discovered these islands, China refrained from asserting its claims actively, acknowledging its disadvantage in terms of economics, politics, and diplomacy. It was only after 1979, when China rejoined the international community and underwent significant economic transformation in the 1980s and 1990s, that Chinese leaders adopted a more assertive stance on the Spratlys.
A historical examination of the discourse among state actors embroiled in this security dilemma underscores a profound struggle over the “ownership” of the Spratlys. China relies on historical claims, while the Philippines leverages international conventions on the law of the sea established through multilateral organizations like the United Nations (UN) to bolster its position. This discursive battle led to the UNCLOS Tribunal’s ruling in 2017, which was unfavorable to China. This should have put an end to the discourse, but China persists in asserting its claims over the West Philippine Sea. Why?
Much like Taiwan, China views the West Philippine Sea as a critical component of its national security strategy. China aims to establish a security buffer to shield itself from potential threats posed by its primary rival, the United States, situated thousands of miles away on another continent. Aware of the historical consequences of Western encroachment in the 18th century, China’s top leaders approach security matters with caution and historical perspective.
A glance at the Asia-Pacific map reveals that China can rest easy only when it has assurance that two strategically located states—namely, the Philippines and Taiwan, which face China or the United States (depending on one’s perspective)—fall within its sphere of influence. This explains China’s desire to reclaim Taiwan and its push for the Philippines to adopt a more neutral stance in its great power competition with the United States.
Beyond its role as a security buffer, China has woven the Spratly Islands into its overarching narrative of uniting the entire Chinese populace. Since the 1970s, China’s leaders have instilled in their people the belief that these islands, protruding from powdery white sands, belong to China—a national patrimonial asset. As such, China considers itself obligated to reclaim these assets by any means necessary.
Whether consciously or not, China’s Communist leaders have intertwined the reclamation of the Spratlys and the issue of Taiwan into their broader narrative of being the legitimate sovereign hegemon of all Chinese people. These two issues have become integral to the Chinese Communist Party’s claims of political legitimacy. Hence, we need to recognize that these two issues are being used by state leaders particularly in times when external or internal forces question their political authority, a situation which China finds itself today.
An examination of various official documents, particularly those issued by Chinese President Xi Jinping, illuminates China’s prioritization of Taiwan as a more significant concern than the Spratlys issue. While China deploys its naval militia to safeguard its strategic interests in the West Philippine Sea, it has notably increased its naval military presence in proximity to Taiwan. This strategic behavior is integral to China’s coercive diplomacy, wherein military deployments serve as a constant reminder to Taiwan, especially those perceived as “separatist forces” in Taipei, not to pursue de jure independence, an action viewed by China as a red line that must not be crossed at any cost. China’s determination to employ military force is indisputable, an integral facet of what Scobell characterizes as “China’s cult of defense.”
In the Taiwan Straits issue, these red lines are explicitly articulated, providing clarity to the parties involved. Regrettably, for the West Philippine Sea, such clearly defined boundaries are lacking, largely because neither China nor the Philippines has established a dominant hegemonic control over the region. The problem is that in the dominant discourse, both China and the Philippines often interchange the definition or description of these watery expanse as either the South China Sea (SCS) or the West Philippine Sea (WPS), a semantic switch strategy that is now a source of misplaced understanding and tension.
Most Filipinos believe that what the Philippines is claiming is the entire South China Sea (SCS), which if we are to believe, extends even at the doorsteps of China and our ASEAN neighbors. Under our domestic laws, the executive and administrative orders signed by former President Ferdinand Marcos senior and in 2012 by President Benigno Aquino Junior clearly states that the WPS is just a portion of the South China Sea (SCS). Under Section 1 of Administrative Order no. 29 signed by President Benigno S. Aquino III on 2012, it defines the West Philippine sea as a “maritime area” on the “western side of the Philippine archipelago” which includes the Luzon sea and “waters around within the adjacent to the Kalayaan Island Group and Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Scarborough shoal. By domestic law, the WPS only refers to portions of the SCS which our government claims as part of our exclusive economic zone or EEZ—a concept introduced by UNCLOS. The Philippine baselines law has been duly enacted thru efforts made by the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Clearly though, what we regard as a “red line” basing not just from international law but even by our national law, is that portion designated as Scarborough shoal together with the Kalayaan Group of Islands (KGI), which of course, includes Ayungin shoal. I am sure that China knows this. Why is China still attempting to encroach these shoals?
The simple answer is that its national laws conflict with ours. Under international law, such conflicts are supposed to be resolved thru multilateralism. While the Philippines secured a favorable outcome in the discursive debate through the UNCLOS ruling in 2017, its inability to enforce this decision has cast doubt within the international community regarding its capability to safeguard its internationally recognized sovereign assets. In the realm of international relations, asserting legal rights is one matter, while enforcing them is quite another. In this context, neither party has clear-cut red lines that would justify the eruption of hostilities.
Nevertheless, there exists one condition that could potentially lead to conflict—an assertive act by the Philippines to reclaim islands already occupied by China. The ongoing contentious matter of Scarborough Shoal may not suffice to ignite the proverbial powder keg. It is plausible that both sides are testing the waters to determine whether Scarborough Shoal is indeed the red line the Philippines is unwilling to let China cross. If this is the case, the Philippines must communicate this clearly to China to dissuade further aggressive actions.
Engaging in actual conflict would be imprudent for both China and the Philippines for two compelling reasons. Firstly, the object of contention is a watery expanse where asserting and maintaining control poses immense challenges. Second, a protracted conflict would severely damage both country’s economies, with China receiving the brunt end of the bargain.
In a naval conflict over the Spratlys, both China and the Philippines, with the support of their security allies such as the United States, Japan, and Australia, would likely expend significant resources, potentially resulting in a revolving door of control depending on which side wields superior firepower. Engaging in a protracted conflict would render China more vulnerable, particularly given that the battleground encompasses a crucial international trade route that bolsters China’s economy. Conducting a war in a critical node of its supply chain network would inflict more harm on China than on the Philippines.
To justify war, China would need to occupy terrestrial space, implying an invasion of the Philippines—a high-risk endeavor. An invasion would not only damage China’s international reputation but also disrupt it economically, socially, and politically. The Philippines would likely transform into an insurgent nation, with its 100 million citizens resisting an invading force. The Philippine geography is conducive to both urban and rural guerrilla warfare, making it improbable for China to maintain control for an extended period. In such a scenario, China would incur substantial costs and face formidable challenges. The indomitable spirit of the Filipino people is a force to reckon with, something uncertain, unpredictable and incalculable, even by the best military tactician of China. Japan has learned its lessons in World War two, when the Philippines became the staging area which the US used in its invasion plans. It is well worth considering by China’s leaders not to allow such a repeat of its humiliating defeat against the West in the 19th century that led to the country’s societal fragmentation. Touching the Philippines might indeed revitalize the United States the very same way that this country attained international hegemonic status as aftermath of its war with civilizations. China is well worth advised not to risk war with the Philippines.
 Richard Rivera used to head the economic diplomacy desk of the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS) of the Foreign Service Institute of the Department of Foreign Affairs during the incumbency of former Filipino Sinologist Dr. Aileen Baviera. He is completing his Masters in International Studies program at the Department of Political Science at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. His research focus is the Taiwan Straits. He is a globally certified PR Crisis counselor, a Paralegal by the UP College of Law and a “futurist.”