Philippines Becomes Pawn in U.S. Strategy to Push China Out of Disputed China Sea

ON 05/07/2024 AT 07 : 44 AM

This week’s Philippines’ joint military exercises with the U.S. simulating a possible Chinese ground invasion are just one of many ways the Southeast Asian nation is bowing to Washington’s will in a high-stakes conflict.
Philippine forces in wargames with U.S. simulating defending against a Chinese attack.
Philippine soldiers trained with the U.S. military on May 6, 2024, to defend against a possible Chinese beach assault as part of the Balikatan war games yesterday.. Offfical X Account of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

As dawn broke on May 6, an estimated 16,700 American and Filipino troops assembled in northern Luzon province to fight off a simulated Chinese military force positioned in the Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of the Philippines.

Balikatan -- May 6, 2024.
U.S. and Philippine forces march through sandy beachfront terrain at La Paz dunes as part of the Balikatan war games on May 6, 2024.. The official X page of Exercise Balikatan 24

American military reports from the scene said U.S. army forces co-located with the Filipino soldiers began the exercise by firing off at least 50 155mm howitzer rounds at real seaborne targets representing a possible hostile naval attack from the People’s Republic of China. A second wave of fire came from Filipino troops, who launched rockets from their own bunkers situated in the La Paz sand dunes, in a tactical assault which would help confuse and draw fire from the invading forces if this had been a real battle. On cue, a third round of defensive volleys featuring choreographed machine gun bursts, further rocket shells, and occasional Javelin missiles, with much of the munitions and artillery provided by the U.S. military.

Naval vessels and military aircraft piloted by members of both the Philippine armed forces and the United States also participated in these drills.

According to Lt. General Michael Cederholm, the commander of the U.S. First Marine Expeditionary Force which partnered with the Philippines in this mock defense, described the purpose of this newly-proclaimed annual “Balikatan” exercises was “to repel an invasion” by “securing key maritime terrain”. He said the games were structured to help the joint military groups “prepare for the worst” in a beachfront attack.

The military director of the Philippines’ part of these exercises, Major General Marvin Licudine, said as the live-fire drills were about to begin that the locale used was selected because, “Our northwestern side is more exposed.”

“The successful execution of this exercise underscores the strengthened cooperation between the Philippines and the United States in defending our shores. With every iteration, we continuously leverage the valuable insights and expertise gained to ensure regional security and stability,” the Philippine general said.

“Because of the regional problems that we have... we have to already practice and orient ourselves in our own land in these parts,” Licudine added.

Combined U.S. and Philippine forces strike an offshore floating target with U.S.-supplied Javelin missiles during Balikatan joint exercises on May 6, 2024.. The official X page of Exercise Balikatan 24

The floating targets which were the focus of this, the first day of a multi-day set of joint wargames were positioned some 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) off the Filipino coast. The ground-based troops were positioned in the province of Ilocos Norte on the large island mass of Luzon. They laid their imaginary siege just outside the city of Laoag, close to the mouth of the Laoag River. The mouth of that river borders the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is claimed by multiple countries, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

China says it owns almost the entirety of the Sea, including the Spratly Islands, some man-made islands it has built in that area, with each land mass now having installations for refueling of all vessels, docks to support fishing, and Chinese Coast Guard support. Some of the islands have military bases, with several alleged to include air defense capabilities in addition to the naval ones. Vietnam asserts it controls both the Spratly and the Paracel Islands plus waterways surrounding them. Malaysia argues it has rights to part of the Spratly chain and to the James Shoal. Like China, Taiwan says it has sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, but its claims are not supported by most other countries, including the United States.

The Philippines has for decades claimed it has rights to a substantial portion of the South China Sea. In 2012, as a means of honoring that claim, then-president Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines ordered the ocean waters west of the Philippine archipelago renamed as the West Philippine Sea. Those maritime areas include the Luzon Sea, plus waterways surrounding and abutting Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Scarborough Shoal, and the Kalayaan Island group.

After the People’s Republic of China began building out the Spratly Islands and other facilities in the South China Sea and expanded its naval patrols far from China and near the coastlines of Vietnam and the Philippines, the administration of President Aquino filed suit in international court to defend rights to what it considered its part of the South China Sea.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled against China’s position regarding ownership of all the territory in the region enclosed by its self-designated maritime border known as the “nine-dash line”.

But after Beijing summarily rejected the decision as invalid and refused to honor it, and because Aquino’s successor, President Rodrigo Duterte, chose not to attempt to enforce the agreement or to confront Chinese ships in the disputed regions, China quickly moved in to secure the South China Sea for itself.

In apparent return for Duterte’s giving in to China solidifying its control, China emerged as a strong economic partner of the Philippines during the six years of Duterte’s term. Beijing sponsored multiple major infrastructure construction projects in the country. Some of the most pivotal of those in terms of importance to the country were the Kauswagan 4x135-megawatt and Dinginin (Mariveles) 2x660-MW coal-fired power station projects, setting up over 1 million new hectares of cropland in the Philippines seeded with special high-yield hybrid rice fields to help feed the masses, the beginnings of a major overhauls of the country’s dilapidated primary airport for the country in Manila, and support of part of an important Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) urban transport initiative located in Cebu City, the second largest metropolitan area of the country after the nation’s capital.  China-based Hunan Road and Bridge Construction Group Co. Ltd. provided construction support for this last project as part of what Beijing hoped would be much closer relations under its Belt and Road Initiative.

That all changed beginning in 2022 when President Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos, Jr., the son of the notorious dictator Ferdinand Marcos who ruled by martial law fifty years ago and with his family stole billions of dollars from the country’s banking accounts, was elected the new president of the Philippines. Actively wooed by the administration of puppet Joe Biden to establish a new military foothold in Southeast Asia, the Philippines quickly became the beneficiary of billions of new American tax dollars, which the country used to restore and rebuild its own military and to shore up existing American military bases running from northernmost Philippines to the southern tip of the archipelago in the province of Mindanao.

Since Marcos became president of the Philippines, what had been a period of calm relations between Beijing and Manila has slowly deteriorated into a mix of accidental and deliberate confrontations between Chinese and Filipino fisherfolk and Naval ships.

In 2024, a series of altercations between the Philippines and China, many coming at the direct instigation of the United States, may be bringing the U.S. and Philippines closer together as military partners. But like this week’s joint training activities, they also could be slowly nudging the government of Marcos Jr. and President Xi Jinping of China closer to a genuine exchange of gunfire.

The first of these came on January 3, 2024,  as the U.S. and the Philippines launched their first major joint military training exercises of the Marcos era deep in the South China Sea and well off the Philippines’ coastline. Along with U.S. and Philippine Naval vessels, China brought in its own Coast Guard and Naval military ships in maneuvers which appeared to have been set up mostly to monitor, rather than to disrupt, the training exercises. The exercises ended without incident, but tensions were high as the ships from both sides appeared within a short visual distance of each other.

Next came the Philippines sailing ordinary fishing vessels multiple times into more of the straits China has long dominated in the South China Sea, in what appear to be a mix of accidental and deliberate confrontations designed to taunt China into taking extreme measures against the ships. Those initial confrontations were minor but set the stage for the U.S. State Department to deplore China’s interventions.

Following those early training exercises and more explicit confrontations between China and the Philippines came a series of two back-to-back visits to the Philippines by senior American officials two months ago. From March 10-14, 2024, Admiral John C. Aquilino, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, met for secret talks with President Marcos and Philippine Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Romeo S. Brawner, Jr. on various regional defense matters. Just a few days later, on March 18 and 19 U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Philippine Secretary for Foreign Affairs Enrique A. Manalo. Blinken and Manalo’s conversations were reportedly wide-ranging, covering investments the U.S. planned to make in the Philippines, ways to enhance trade between the two countries, and further discussions on China’s actions in the South China Sea.

On April 7, 2024, the U.S. helped coordinate a set of joint military training exercise in the South China Sea between its forces and those of Australia, Japan, and the Philippines. That training included a focus on anti-submarine warfare, again with specific Chinese capabilities, including underwater military drones, as a focus for the maneuvers.

Less than a week after that, President Marcos and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan visited the White House, where they along with dementia-ridden Joe Biden, signed off on a tripartite agreement extending the G7 group of nations’ Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGI) to cover the Philippines. The “letter of intent” they signed on April 11, 2024, covers funding for the extensive infrastructure development for railroads, seaport upgrades, roadway improvements, and clean energy projects, plus additional projects bringing Japanese semiconductor manufacturing expertise and plants to the Philippines for the first time. The projects will run throughout the Luzon Economic Corridor, which connects Subic Bay, Clark, Manila and Batangas, all of which also just happen to be where there is already a growing U.S. military presence as well.

On April 19 the U.S. House passed a long-awaited seminal bill authorizing $8.12 billion in military aid funding for the Indo-Pacific region, in addition to $61 billion for Ukraine and $17 billion to Israel. A significant portion of the Indo-Pacific funding is allocated to the Philippines, to boost their military capabilities while paving the way for further occupation of the Philippines by American armed forces on expanded bases in the country. A few days later the Senate passed the bill and puppet Joe Biden signed it into law.

Then last week the Philippines had one of its most serious confrontations to date with China. On April 30, a Filipino Coast Guard ship was on its way to the Philippine-claimed but China-secured Scarborough Shoal area. It was coming to provide supplies to Filipino fisherfolk which previously entered the territory, accompanied by a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) boat.

Despite the past conflicts, part of the supposed arrangement from when Duterte was president were to allow the movement of fishing vessels without incident. But the moment the Coast Guard and BFAR ships arrived on the scene, China responded first by maneuvering its own ships into position to signal for the Philippine vessel to back off. Then it fired water cannons at the Coast Guard vessel from both sides, and the other from just one, in what it claimed was just a warning rather than an outright aggressive attack.

It took two days for the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs to respond formally to what had happened, which the Marcos administration says caused damage to their ships and threatened the crew with physical harm. The Coast Guard ship had several metal sections of the upper hull bent and otherwise bent and torn by the powerful water jets. The Philippines claims this was the most harmful attack to date on any of its ships.

“The Philippines protested the harassment, ramming, swarming, shadowing and blocking, dangerous maneuvers, use of water cannons, and other aggressive actions of China coastguard and Chinese maritime militia vessels against,” the Foreign Affairs department said in a statement sent on May 2.

“China’s aggressive actions, particularly its water cannon use, caused damage to vessels of PCG and BFAR. The Philippines demanded that Chinese vessels leave Bajo de Masinloc and its vicinity immediately,” it added.

The Philippine government notably used the Filipino name for the Scarborough Shoal.

On May 4 the Chinese government responded to the Philippines’ statement about the confrontations , and the subsequent summoning of Chinese embassy officials in Manila to the Philippine presidential palace, by challenging the Foreign Affairs statement as factually wrong. It claimed Philippines officials had previously agreed to a “new model” for managing the Second Thomas Shoal where the water cannon incident happened. It issued that statement via social media online.

The next day, Eduardo M. Año, Marcos’ National Security Advisor, and Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Junior of the Philippines’ Department of National Defense simultaneously but separately issued formal denials that they or anyone in their administrations had agreed to what the Chinese officials insist is what really happen.

At this point there is no resolution of the April 30 incident involving the water cannons, and there probably will not be.

In parallel with the developments regarding the water cannon skirmish on April 30, on May 2 just as the Philippine Foreign Affairs’ statement was issued, senior defense officials from the Philippines, United States, Australia, and Japan were meeting at only the second of a series of military strategy summits designed to map a strategy of how to fight back against China’s power grab in the South China Sea. The meeting was held at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command regional headquarters, located at Camp H.M. Smith just above Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

In attendance were Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. of the Philippines, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles, and Japanese Defense Minister Minoru Kihara.

In a joint press conference at the Hawaii event, U.S. Defense Secretary Austin proclaimed the early April joint military exercises of the four nations a success, in terms of what was learned, to “build bonds among our forces,” and as a symbol to “underscore our shared commitment to international law in the South China Sea.”

The other ministers continued the same tone in their own brief public statements about their session.

Australian Defense Minister Marles said that the presence of these four nations’ military heads delivers “a very significant message to the region and to the world about four democracies which are committed to the global rules-based order."

Japanese Defense Minister Kihara declared he and the other three defense leaders "stand united to strongly oppose any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo of the South China Sea by force or any activity to heighten the tension in the region."

Gilberto Teodoro, Jr., the Philippine Defense Secretary, applauded the support of he and his colleagues present to uphold "principles of international law which guide the global order in the proper way that nations should live amongst each other."

With the latest joint military exercises between the U.S. and the Philippines this week, even while those “principles of international law” are being upheld, it is also apparent how rapidly the Philippines has taken on a much higher-risk posture against China than at any time in the 21st century. While it may offer important political benefits as well as some investment ones principally from the United States, it is also putting Manila on a potentially explosive military collision course with Beijing.