China-Philippines Tensions Heat Up

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: China-Philippines tensions rise around a flash point in the South China Sea, Beijing’s growing academic isolation raises concerns among Chinese scholars, and a Chinese disinformation network shifts toward pro-Trump content.

China’s saber-rattling against the Philippines in the South China Sea heated up last month, in a seeming attempt to intimidate Manila into backing off from closer ties with Washington.

The current flash point is the BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-era landing ship that the Philippines deliberately grounded on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal (or Ren’ai Jiao), a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands, in 1999 and now serves as an outpost. On March 23, China used a water cannon against a Philippine boat on a resupply mission to the Sierra Madre.

The Spratly Islands sit between the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia. The islands, cays, and reefs within the archipelago are subject to many overlapping territorial claims and include some of the most southern points of China’s expansive nine-dash line. Although they have little value in themselves, they sit on a critical trade and supply route.

The Sierra Madre’s history is a microcosm of Asia’s wars. Built by the United States for World War II’s Pacific theater in 1944, the ship was also used extensively during the Vietnam War, transferred to the South Vietnamese navy in 1970, and acquired by the Philippines in 1976 after the fall of Saigon. China has built up its own outpost on nearby Mischief Reef, part of its extensive sand-dredging operations in the South China Sea.

The Philippines keeps a permanent detachment of around two dozen marines on the Sierra Madre, serving short rotations. That demands a constant resupply process, which is often disrupted by Chinese harassment. The 80-year-old ship is also on the brink of collapse, and the refitting process has become urgent, making clashes between the resupply boats and Chinese boats more frequent.

However, there are bigger forces at play. China has long-running maritime disputes with the Philippines. In 2016, Beijing refused to attend or recognize a U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea tribunal that ruled largely in Manila’s favor. But from then onward, China had then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in its pocket; his pro-China views clashed with the military’s focus on Beijing as the biggest threat to the nation.

Toward the end of his tenure, Duterte was inching away from China, in part because some of its investment promises never materialized. Current President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, the son of the Philippines’ former dictator, has taken a more traditional pro-U.S. line. Washington has been eager to reciprocate, quietly ignoring U.S. court rulings that his father’s estate owes hundreds of millions of dollars to victims of the regime in the 1970s and 1980s.

Marcos’s attempts to build alliances go beyond the Philippines’ tighter relationship with the United States. He has reached out to several possible partners, including Vietnam (a fellow target of Chinese maritime aggression), Australia, and Japan. China—by far the largest power involved in the disputes—dislikes such efforts: In the last decade, it has emphasized keeping South China Sea disputes bilateral and accused outside powers of interfering.

Marcos faces opposition from a truculent Duterte, who has called for independence for his home region of Mindanao—despite his daughter currently serving as vice president. That could be one reason for Beijing turning the screws in the South China Sea now, hoping to weaken Marcos.

Chinese nationalists like former Global Times editor Hu Xijin have engaged in aggressive rhetoric, such as calling for Philippine ships to be “riddled with bullets.” But such figures don’t necessarily represent Chinese policy or fully believe their own rhetoric. The Chinese public widely mocked Hu’s bombastic threats that China would shoot down then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plane during her visit to Taiwan in 2022.

Any conflict between China and the Philippines would be especially dangerous: Manila could invoke its mutual defense treaty with Washington. There are, of course, many steps between coast guard clashes in the Spratly Islands and World War III. Yet the possibility of fatalities, or even the sinking of a vessel, remains real. It would create a major crisis that would necessitate rapid de-escalation efforts between China and the United States.

Declining academic ties. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a massive downturn in intellectual exchange between the United States and China, starting with students. There are many Chinese students in the United States—roughly 290,000—but that is still a more than 20 percent decline from 2019. By contrast, the number of U.S. students in China during the 2022-2023 academic year was just around 350, down from 15,000 a decade ago.

A recent study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies offers useful perspectives on just how bad things have gotten, decrying U.S. securitization as well as a much more extensive set of ideological controls from China. A surprisingly blunt essay from distinguished Chinese scholar Wang Jisi in the report notes how dominant Xi Jinping Thought has become, leading to demands placed on academics that go beyond traditional Marxist-Leninist restrictions.

“Issues such as the geographic origins of the earliest human beings are not important to traditional Marxists, but they are touchy and essential to China’s ideological workers,” Wang writes, referring to nationalist (and racist) claims that humans first emerged in China, not Africa.

Wang can write like this relatively safely because he’s 76 years old and has long-standing ties to the Chinese diplomatic and intelligence apparatus. But some top Chinese international relations scholars have become very concerned about China’s academic isolation: Yan Xuetong, also writing from a relatively safe position, recently called for more “opening up” and has decried the turn toward nationalism and conspiracy theories among young people in China.

Xi-Biden call. U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had their first of what is hoped to be a regular series of phone calls on Tuesday, following a face-to-face meeting last November that has led to a slow normalization of bilateral exchange. Little has emerged from the call, which covered well-trodden ground, such as Taiwan and the sensitivities around next month’s presidential inauguration there.

However, this kind of undramatic regular contact adds much-needed ballast back to a dangerously unstable relationship.

Propaganda turns toward Trump. A long-running Chinese disinformation network devoted largely to straightforward pro-Beijing content—and named Spamouflage by researchers—appears to have shifted gears. It is now producing content supportive of former U.S. President Donald Trump in a seeming attempt to worsen divisions and influence the U.S. election, taking cues from previous Russian efforts.

As researcher Elise Thomas noted, Spamouflage is “infamous among researchers for two things: its enormous scale, and its almost complete ineffectiveness.” (China has had less apparent success planting false stories in U.S. media than in Taiwanese media, for example.) Online trolling is hardly a new or powerful tool, but it may indicate what Beijing wants.

However, it is also possible that the network is also producing pro-Biden content that hasn’t been noticed—or that Chinese content tends to focus on attacking whoever holds power in the United States.

Coffee wars. Chinese coffee chain Luckin is facing a price challenge from competitor Cotti Coffee, which was started by Luckin’s own founders, Lu Zhengyao and Qian Zhiya. Both companies’ prices are already cheap, each offering a range of 9.9 yuan ($1.37) options on their delivery app. The Starbucks menu in China starts at 27 yuan ($3.73) for a small Americano.

It remains strange that Luckin survived revelations of massive fraud in 2020—and that Lu and Qian managed to stay out of jail and come back with funding for another cheap coffee venture. Both companies operate on a vast scale: Luckin has 18,257 stores, nearly three times as many outlets as Starbucks in China, while Cotti has 6,570 stores within two years of its founding.

Luckin now reports record profitability, perhaps aided by the turn toward penny-pinching among Chinese consumers. I would love to see a breakdown of how a delivery model offering coffee for less than $2 works for either company—even with Chinese cities’ poorly paid and overworked delivery workers.

In the poem below, the lines about the reclusive poet Tao Yuanming’s “little lane” and his “friends’ carriages” are a persistent point of disagreement for readers and commentators.

A straight reading of the lines, as adopted here—literally, “[my] narrow lane is far from deep ruts / and tends to [cause to] return friends’ carriages”—has Tao observe that he won’t be troubled by any surprise visits as he turns his attention to his reading.

In another interpretation, the second part of the line is read as “and tends to cause friends’ carriages to return,” which makes sense if the reader assumes that the remoteness of Tao’s home was a draw. Some commentators have even suggested that the lines are an interpolation.

True lovers of reading will recognize the accuracy of my mental image: Tao settling down comfortably with a few prized and hand-copied books, including The Classic of Mountains and Seas, a geographic fantasia, for some alone time and reflecting that friends probably won’t come, but smiling at the thought that someone might.—Brendan O’Kane, translator

Reading the Book of Mountains and Seas
by Tao Yuanming, (365-427)

The first month of summer: everything is growing,
and the trees around my cottage have all filled in;

Flocks of birds are exulting in their new lodgings,
and I the fonder of my little home;

And the ploughing is done, and the planting is all finished—
and now it’s the season for reading my books again.

My little lane is far off the beaten track,
and tends to turn friends’ carriages away.

There’s a spring in my step as I pour a cup of homebrew
and pick some vegetables from the patch,

And a fine rain coming in from the east,
in the company of a pleasant breeze.

I browse through The Voyages of the King of Zhou,
cast my gaze over the Book of Mountains and Seas,

One sweep and I’ve covered the entire universe.
If that’s not joy, then I don’t know what is.

This article was originally published by a . Read the Original article here. .