- Philippine naval activity in disputed South China Sea waters increased more than seven-fold in recent months.
- President Roderigo Duterte appears to have yielded to pressure from the military establishment to push back more strongly against Chinese military activities in the region.
- Military conflict remains unlikely, but Beijing’s more aggressive posture is hampering its bid for regional leadership and pushing Southeast Asian countries closer to Washington.
Thirteen Philippine law enforcement and naval vessels visited the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal 57 times from March to May, compared to three vessels and 7 visits for May 2020 to February 2021, according to the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative. The initiative said the number was likely an undercount, missing patrols by Philippine naval vessels that did not broadcast on the automated identification system. Not only did the number of patrols increase, but their coverage widened: previously, vessels mostly limited their activities to the areas around Thitu Island, where the Philippine navy has an outpost. But the March to May patrols encompassed a larger geographical area, including waters actively patrolled by China.
Our previous note highlighted how pronouncements from the Philippines’ defense and foreign secretaries, as well as the military leadership, had become noticeably more hawkish in March, seemingly diverging from the accommodative tone of the past five years under President Rodrigo Duterte and the consequent restraint shown by the defense establishment.
But the fact that the shift in tone was accompanied by increased naval activity — the orders for which probably did not come from Duterte — suggests that the turn away from the Duterte administration’s China policy has institutional traction and that there is some daylight between the president and the military on the issue. In fact, the president became defensive in May as the media highlighted the more confrontational stance of his senior officials, and this discomfort eventually manifested in late May when Duterte ordered the cabinet to avoid public statements on the issue.
And while this order has quieted Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin to a certain extent, the domestic narrative in Manila has also shifted in favor of the position that the Philippines must do more than in previous years to protect its interests. Senator Manny Pacquiao, the boxer and potential 2022 presidential or vice-presidential candidate, has publicly feuded with the president over the issue, criticizing Duterte’s policy as disheartening and inadequate, even though both politicians nominally belong to the leading PDP-Laban party. Pacquiao now appears headed for an open split with the administration and could stoke the issue even more.
Political discussions in Manila are therefore likely to be more critical of both China’s actions in the South China Sea and of the Duterte administration’s policies. Immediately after he won the presidency, Duterte pivoted the country’s foreign policy towards China, even though the country’s elites, and likely most of the public, were uncomfortable about the move. Nonetheless, Duterte used his political capital to overcome these reservations. Now, with the end of his term looming and the military establishment (as well as some political opponents) less willing to defer to him, the president may find it more difficult to sweep the issue under the rug.
Manila is not alone in strengthening its pushback against China’s South China Sea activities. The Vietnamese government launched a new Permanent Maritime Militia Unit on 16 June composed of nine ships and platoons equipped with light weapons and trained to conduct paramilitary operations. The purpose of the squadron is to “protect the sovereignty of the sea and islands,” and the militia will conduct patrols and collect intelligence, according to the Defense Ministry.
Manila and Hanoi’s more assertive posture modestly raises the risk of an incident in the South China Sea. Our base case remains that military conflict is highly unlikely. But we have also predicted that over the medium-to-long term, Beijing’s increased assertiveness in the disputed waters will hamper its bid for regional leadership by pushing southeast Asian countries closer to the US. This trend was evident in Duterte’s decision on 14 June to suspend the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US for six months, the third such suspension. Most likely, Philippine defense officials have been gradually convincing the cabinet, and ultimately the president, to defer final action. The US Defense Department is reportedly also considering establishing a new permanent naval task force in the Pacific dedicated to countering China and officially launching a new named military operation.
The Chinese navy and air force have expanded their South China Sea presence in recent months, including 28 warplanes that flew through Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on 16 June, the largest single-day show of force on record. The exercises followed a US aircraft carrier drill in the disputed waters and US President Joe Biden’s meeting with G7 and NATO leaders, which produced statements warning of the Chinese military threat. In the next couple of weeks, the Royal Fleet flagship, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, is expected to enter the region. Chinese leaders are not blind to the diplomatic cost of their more assertive posture, but China’s domestic politics generally require that sovereignty issues supersede other priorities, so a change of course is unlikely. The result will be increased naval and warplane traffic from various participants, raising both the geopolitical noise from the region and the risk of an accidental incident.