The Philippines-China-U.S. Triangle: A Precarious Relationship

Tensions in the South China Sea are heating up.

Earlier this year, the Philippines risked permanent estrangement with China by pressing ahead (March 30) with its arbitration case before a United Nations Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague. The move came after a year of futile diplomatic efforts by the Aquino administration to peacefully resolve the territorial disputes. With its latest legal maneuver, the Philippines is trying to place maximum diplomatic pressure on China amid an intensifying territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

China vehemently opposed the arbitration case, and argued against the “internationalization” of what it deems as essentially bilateral territorial disputes to be resolved outside the court of law. Since last year, China has repeatedly sought to discourage the Philippines from legally challenging what it considers to be its “indisputable” and “inherent” sovereignty over most features in the South China Sea. It even threatened the Philippines with sanctions and other punitive measures.

Against the backdrop of rising tensions between the Philippines and China, President Obama’s recent trip (April 28-29) to Manila couldn’t be timelier. Bereft of any credible minimum deterrence capability, the Philippines has sought deeper military cooperation with and commitment from its long-time ally, the United States. Shortly before Obama’s arrival, the two countries signed a new security pact, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which grants American troops rotational access to Philippine bases in Clark and Subic. In exchange, the Philippines will benefit from expanded joint-military exercises and enhanced interoperability with the U.S. military. The new agreement aims to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation in both traditional and nontraditional security realms.

While the latest agreement deepens the United States’ strategic footprint in Asia, adding much-needed momentum to the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” (P2A) policy, the Philippines, in turn, has been slightly alarmed by the lack of explicit American commitment to come to its rescue in the event of a military conflict with China over disputed features of the South China Sea.

The Gloves Are Off

In recent months, the growing assertiveness of Chinese paramilitary forces in the South China Sea—which have reportedly harassed Filipino fishermen as well as threatened Filipino troops stationed across the disputed areas—has set off alarm bells in the Philippines. Since 2013, China has expanded and streamlined its patrols across the South China Sea—part of the Xi administration’s efforts to consolidate Chinese claims in the Western Pacific.