South China Sea: US-China rivalry leaves Whitsun Reef and the Philippines in deep and dangerous waters
- A Sino-Philippine row over a remote Spratlys reef has drawn in the US and its allies, greatly raising the geopolitical stakes in a worrying game of chicken
Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines tilted towards China, but the latest flap has helped the Philippine opposition push Duterte’s administration towards a more aggressive China stance. This is much to the advantage of US interests and may even help the pro-US Philippine opposition win the presidency next year.
A row over a remote reef in the Spratlys has quickly drawn in the US and its allies, greatly raising the geopolitical stakes.
Such hype enhances the chances of a China-Philippines clash of naval or coastguard vessels. This could drag the US into the fray through the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty, which covers an armed attack in the Pacific – which for the US includes the South China Sea.
The Philippines has hinted that it might invoke the treaty although the US is not required to automatically provide military backup.
In response, the Philippines urged restraint so as not to “exacerbate the already tense situation”.
The US is unlikely to risk going to war with China to back up Philippine claims or any provocative action over remote disputed rocks in the South China Sea. But if Chinese forces attack Philippine forces, all bets are off.
Duterte, who has left the war of words to his defence and foreign affairs chiefs, sees no need to use force, said his spokesman Harry Roque. “We will continue to resolve the issues on Julian Felipe through diplomatic channels and through peaceful means,” he added, using the reef’s Philippine name.
But not all are mollified. Locsin tweeted recently: “Irrelevant whether we possess commensurate military power to meet the challenge; we will not yield but die – or trigger World War 3. Not a bad outcome; living is overrated. Honour is all.” Sarcastic perhaps, but the statement does portray the sentiments of the extreme opposition.
Whatever the reason, the concentration of Chinese boats has played into America’s narrative that China is expansionist, aggressive and untrustworthy, encouraging European upholders of the international order, such as Britain, France and Germany, to publicly support the US attempt to contain China.
The situation has yet to deteriorate into open conflict possibly because no nation wants to be seen as the aggressor. But doing nothing makes everyone look weak.
Egged on by militarists, the US and China are playing a dangerous game of chicken in the South China Sea – making the Whitsun Reef incident particularly worrying.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China