WASHINGTON, US: For the last several months, the Chinese government has steadily ramped up its coercive gray-zone tactics in order to interfere with Philippine civilian resupply missions of troops aboard the BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. In 1999, Manila intentionally ran the World War II-era ship aground on this disputed shoal, establishing a permanent military presence, to demonstrate Philippine sovereignty there. Since then, Philippine resupply missions have consistently faced Chinese harassment.
This year, such activities, which are non-kinetic and meant to achieve national objectives without warfare, have clearly intensified. Beijing has shone a military-grade laser to blind the Philippine coast guard, fired a water cannon at Philippine vessels, conducted dangerous maneuvers near coast guard vessels, and most recently, on Oct. 22, intentionally rammed resupply and escorting Philippine ships.
In response to the latest and most serious incident, the Philippine government summoned the Chinese ambassador to express its deep concerns and filed its 55th diplomatic protest of the year. But, fortunately for Manila, it is not alone. The longstanding U.S.-Philippine security alliance gives Manila the confidence needed to stand up to China. In particular, Article V of the Mutual Defense Treaty states:
… an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft [emphasis added] in the Pacific.
If the Mutual Defense Treaty is tripped, then the U.S. military is very likely to intervene in the Second Thomas Shoal dispute, or perhaps in disputes over other South China Sea features like Chinese-controlled Scarborough Shoal or Philippine-inhabited and increasingly threatened Pag-asa Island. Chinese military assertiveness is on the rise in this region primarily because the People’s Liberation Army, unlike in previous years, now has both the capability and capacity to harass rival vessels, especially as supported by artificial island construction and militarization of nearby features, including Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.
Going forward, there are a range of potential options American officials might consider to counter Chinese gray-zone activities in the region. For example, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps could play a direct role in future Second Thomas Shoal standoffs, thereby bolstering deterrence. But this might inadvertently result in a more muscular and destabilizing Chinese response. Manila and Washington may alternatively designate Second Thomas Shoal and other disputed features as falling directly under the purview of Article V of the Mutual Defense Treaty, but doing this for Japan’s Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute with China in the East China Sea has not tamped down China’s coercive gray-zone tactics. Rather, the United States should probably just stay the course by providing military assistance and training to the Philippines, while continuing to remind and warn Beijing that Article V must not be violated.
Chinese Gray-Zone Tactics
Within the context of the Second Thomas Shoal dispute, the U.S. government has consistently reiterated the terms of the Mutual Defense Treaty. Last month, when asked about China’s bullying of the Philippines, President Joe Biden responded by saying that “the United States defense commitment to the Philippines is ironclad. Any attack on Filipino aircraft, vessels, or armed forces will invoke our mutual defense treaty with the Philippines.” Additionally, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Philippine Secretary of National Defense Gilberto Teodoro held a phone call and their readout contained similar language. Right after the incident, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, spoke with his Philippine counterpart, Eduardo M. Año, and Sullivan noted that the Mutual Defense Treaty extends to armed attacks against Philippine coast guard operations in the South China Sea. Washington also deployed the U.S. Coast Guard’s fast-response cutter, CGC Frederick Hatch, to the Philippines, in a display of its continued security commitment.
So far, the U.S.-Philippine alliance has succeeded in deterring an armed attack against the Philippines, its government, and its military assets. But Beijing’s intensifying efforts to leverage gray-zone tactics is nevertheless a cause for concern. China could cross the line, whether purposefully or inadvertently, that would trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty and lead to war.
One reason China might purposefully cross the line is that Beijing perceives Washington to be overly distracted with supporting Ukraine against Russia in Eastern Europe, and now Israel against Hamas and potentially Hezbollah and Iran in the Middle East. Indeed, Beijing may have authorized the latest and riskiest ramming maneuvers in order to test American resolve while conflicts on the other side of the world are competing for Washington’s attention. Beijing might view the current international context as an ideal time for launching a surprise attack on the Philippines in order to eliminate future resupply missions to Second Thomas Shoal and remove the Sierra Madre once and for all.
This, however, is unlikely. If anything, the U.S.-Philippine alliance is the healthiest it has been since its inception, in 1951. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, unlike his anti-America and China-friendly predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, is committed to deepening and expanding the alliance to address the rising threat from China.
The Biden administration has responded to Marcos’ commitment by, in turn, significantly strengthening the alliance. Along with Manila, the United States has agreed to expand the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement from five bases to nine, which will enable the U.S. military to pre-position equipment and temporarily deploy troops to these locations in the Philippines and contend with a range of contingencies, including Chinese attacks in the South China Sea.
The political leadership in Washington and Manila are further set to launch joint patrols later this year, and the Philippines is already benefiting from multilateral patrols, namely between the United States, Australia, and Japan, to bolster deterrence as well. Teodoro recently stated that the latest incident “could result in more willing nations to join our fight.” These trends would have to make China, at a minimum, think twice about intentionally triggering the Mutual Defense Treaty.
The more likely scenario in the South China Sea is that, while China escalates its gray-zone tactics, these tactics remain just below the threshold of bringing the Mutual Defense Treaty into play. Beijing has already conducted numerous non-kinetic operations around Second Thomas Shoal, but there are others it still might consider. For example, Beijing could ram future resupply or Philippine coast guard ships harder to create more damage (the latest incident created little to no damage).
Separately, in September, the Philippine coast guard removed a floating barrier China had laid to cordon off Scarborough Shoal, another disputed feature within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Beijing might attempt to lay a similar floating barrier near Second Thomas Shoal. Establishing a total blockade around Second Thomas Shoal, with artificial barriers or Chinese coast guard and fishing militia ships, however, might reasonably be considered by both Manila and Washington as an act of war.
Alternatively, Beijing could instruct its coast guard to fully exercise the law passed in 2021 calling upon the service to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organizations or individuals at sea.” In response, the Chinese coast guard, on the high end, is authorized to fire upon rival ships.
Although Beijing would probably be circumspect about doing this against the Philippine coast guard or other Philippine government or military vessels, it could fire upon Philippine fishing boats with no affiliation to Manila to send a message and ensure the Mutual Defense Treaty is not activated.
The Chinese coast guard might also fire warning shots with live ammunition to deter resupply missions. Another possibility is that the Chinese coast guard boards and detains resupply crew ships, but doing so would likely be considered a hostile act — tantamount to an armed attack — which could, again, invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty, especially if Philippine government or military officials are involved.
Regardless, in the coming weeks and months, China is likely to roll out new and creative gray-zone tactics to get the point across that it maintains sovereignty over Second Thomas Shoal. If this happens, then it will only reconfirm the fact that deterrence through the strengthening U.S.-Philippine alliance is actually working. Put a different way, because deterrence is holding, Beijing must reach into its toolkit to find additional coercive gray-zone tactics to stop future resupply missions, short of an armed attack. Rather than view such moves with frustration, Manila and Washington should consider them a victory.
Nonetheless, China’s gray-zone activities could inadvertently result in triggering the Mutual Defense Treaty through an accident at sea that leads to miscalculation, escalation, and armed conflict. This is the scenario that understandably keeps American and Philippine policymakers and strategic planners up at night.
As my colleague Blake Herzinger recently argued in these pages, one way of mitigating the potential risk is to remove the Sierra Madre and replace it with a combined forward operating base that includes Philippine forces and U.S. Marine Corps. This could significantly bolster deterrence because the U.S. Navy is much better at repelling Chinese gray-zone activities, according to Herzinger. Doing so, however, could also invite reprisals and put U.S. military personnel and assets unnecessarily and directly in harm’s way.
Alternatively, the United States could unequivocally state that Second Thomas Shoal — and, for that matter, other disputed South China Sea features including Scarborough Shoal and Pag-asa — are covered by the Mutual Defense Treaty if attacked.
Washington has done this before. For example, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in 2012 announced that the Obama administration would defend Japan’s Senkaku Islands (China’s Diaoyu) from Chinese aggression, explicitly stating they were covered under Article V of the U.S.-Japanese Mutual Defense Treaty. The problem, however, is that Chinese interference in the East China Sea has continued unabated, with another coast guard standoff happening there just this past week.
Perhaps the best solution is what has already been happening: The United States should continue to offer military assistance and training to the Philippines so that Manila can increasingly counter China on its own while Washington continues to remind and warn Beijing that Article V must not be violated. This is the least risky option that also holds the greatest chance of success.