Opinion | Will US-Philippines dialogue only worsen South China Sea tensions?

The Marcos administration has attempted to strengthen its hand in South China Sea disputes with China, primarily by trying to involve other countries in its protests against Beijing while negotiating with it at the same time.

The more robust the ties that the Philippines builds with foreign powers, the more leverage it has in negotiations. Therefore, a reinforced relationship with the US via the “2+2” dialogue would be beneficial to Manila’s negotiations with Beijing.

Second, the US intends to bolster the Marcos administration’s stance towards China by offering substantial support. So far, the Philippines has been dealing with whether and how to continue its hard line against China, given the potential costs involved. The dialogue gives the US a chance to support Manila’s continued assertiveness in the region.
Third, last year’s “2+2” dialogue took place in April, not long before the annual Balikatan exercises between the US and Philippines militaries. Given their enhanced levels of strategic cooperation, both sides may discuss policy coordination on maritime activities, thus broadening the scope of their defence cooperation.

During last year’s meeting, Washington and Manila resolved to “modernise” their alliance and optimise mutual defence capabilities. This year’s dialogue comes as the Philippines continues its operations in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Late last month, a small aircraft from the Philippines dropped off supplies for troops on a grounded vessel at Second Thomas Shoal, known as Renai Reef in China and Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines. Continuing resupply missions to troops on the beached vessel is likely to be a top priority for the Philippine military going forward.
Given this, Philippine officials are expected to highlight the Second Thomas Shoal issue during the latest dialogue with the US, and Washington is likely to advise on how to maintain the Philippines’ presence in the disputed reef. The two sides are also likely to discuss enhancing the Philippines’ maritime strength by upgrading and modernising its fleet, and holding more joint patrols and military exercises to counter what they see as Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.


Marcos Jnr says China showing interest in South China Sea atolls that lie close to the Philippines

Marcos Jnr says China showing interest in South China Sea atolls that lie close to the Philippines

On January 17, Teodoro said the Philippines was planning to conduct “ more robust” military activities with the US and its allies in the face of a “more aggressive” China. Even so, Washington could still curb Manila’s activities in the South China Sea.
The Biden administration’s attention is currently divided between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and trying to keep Israel’s war in Gaza from spilling over into the wider Middle East. As such, it is unlikely that the US would be eager to open another front. If there is to be any confrontation in the South China Sea, Washington would probably prefer the non-military kind.
Last November, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr raised the prospect of a separate code of conduct for the South China Sea with fellow claimant states Malaysia and Vietnam. More recently, he travelled to Vietnam to sign agreements that included establishing a joint coastguard committee to discuss common issues.

Will more assertive Philippine approach to South China Sea pay off?

While consultations over the code of conduct might come up during the US-Philippines dialogue, a similar bilateral agreement between the two is unlikely any time soon. Manila and Washington have strengthened their policy coordination amid the consultations over the South China Sea code of conduct, as they seek to ensure their interests are protected.
For its part, China has expressed strong disapproval over what it sees as US intervention in code of conduct talks. It has repeatedly warned that it would see the presence of external actors in territorial disputes in the South China Sea as a hostile move and treat it as such.

In conclusion, next month’s “2+2” Philippines-US dialogue is likely to advance defence cooperation between the two countries. Any resulting increase in Manila’s ’ assertiveness in the South China Sea could risk intensifying confrontation in the disputed waters.

Nian Peng is director of the Hong Kong Research Centre for Asian Studies (RCAS), Hong Kong

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