With tension running high between the Philippines and China because of their maritime dispute, one wrong move could see Beijing grabbing all the disputed islands, say regional experts.
"The danger really is a short, sharp conflict due to miscalculation," said Chito Santa Romana, former ABC News Beijing bureau chief who was once shortlisted to become Manila's ambassador to China. "The margin of error for our forces is really very small."
Speaking at a forum yesterday on "Understanding 21st century China", Santa Romana warned the Philippines should be wary of China's "cabbage" [encirclement] strategy.
"The idea is for us to make a mistake - to ram their ship, to arrest a fisherman, to fire at a fisherman - if we do any of those, I think we lose an island," he said.
"If we make another mistake, I think the Chinese will continue to probe the weak spots, and if they can achieve it, they would want to control all the disputed islands before a decision [by the arbitration committee on the law of the sea] is made. So even if they lose the case, there is nothing more to talk about."
On Saturday, the Philippine military used a small supply vessel to evade larger Chinese coast guard ships blockading a tiny Filipino garrison on the Second Thomas Shoal.
The shoal is part of the Spratlys, a chain of islets that sit near key shipping lanes, surrounded by rich fishing grounds that are believed to lie atop huge oil and gas reserves. A small number of Philippine soldiers are stationed on a navy vessel that was grounded there in 1999 to assert the Philippines' sovereignty.
Marwyn Samuels, a China specialist from Syracuse University who has been a visiting professor at Beijing, Tsinghua and Nanjing universities, said Chinese efforts to block Philippine supply ships could be dangerous.
"Too much of this is not easily predictable, accidents will happen, somebody will make the wrong move at the wrong moment and that's going to escalate, so yes, it's worrisome," he said.
He pointed out that while China has the military advantage, "from a political point of view it's difficult [for China], because of the Americans".
Manila and Washington are poised to sign an agreement that will increase the US military presence in the Philippines.
Beijing's efforts to block the supply ships has stirred anger in the Philippines. A brief rally was held by left-wing activists yesterday in front of the Chinese consulate in Manila to protest "the harassment" by Chinese coast guard ships of the Philippine resupply ship.
About 60 members of the Akbayan political party, which is part of the ruling coalition, carried a mock yellow tape measure during the protest, yelling "China do you know how to measure?"
At a meeting of senior Asean officials in Myanmar that ended on Monday, Philippine foreign undersecretary Evan Garcia stressed the importance of a code of conduct in the South China Sea after Manila filed a case with the UN on Sunday challenging Beijing's claim to most of the disputed waters.
He told the forum yesterday that the Philippine filing "manifested our commitment to a peaceful and durable means towards a lasting solution to the disputes in the South China Sea anchored on the rule of law."