Report to Congress on China-Philippines Tensions in the South China Sea – USNI News

The following is the Jan. 23, 2024, Congressional Research Service In Focus report, China-Philippines Tensions in the South China Sea.

From the report

In 2023, the People’s Republic of China (PRC, or China) increased pressure on the Philippines to abandon one of its nine outposts in the Spratly Islands chain in the South China Sea (SCS) and attempted to deny Philippine vessels access to parts of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that China claims as its own territory. The escalation of long-standing Sino-Philippine tensions raises the possibility of a crisis or conflict involving China, the Philippines, and potentially the United States.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who was elected in 2022, has taken a considerably more public stance in challenging China’s expansive claims in the SCS than his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. Marcos has also expanded military cooperation with the United States under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which aims to support U.S. strategic interests in the region and the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Rising Tensions at Second Thomas Shoal

Second Thomas Shoal (Tagalog: Ayungin Shoal), an atoll in the Spratly Island chain, has been a flash point among the broad disputes over sovereignty in the SCS (Figure 1). The Philippines posts a small cadre of its marines on a now-derelict Philippine Navy ship, the Sierra Madre, which it grounded on the shoal in 1999 as part of its efforts to protect its maritime claims. Since 2013, China has increased its presence near the shoal as part of its attempt to end the Philippines’ occupation there. Second Thomas Shoal is a low-tide elevation (meaning it is fully submerged at high tide) located roughly 105 nautical miles (nm) from the Philippine island of Palawan, 620 nm from the PRC, and 22 nm from Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation in the Spratlys where the PRC maintains an outpost. The PRC government claims that Joseph Estrada (president of the Philippines from 1998-2001) promised to remove the Sierra Madre, which the Marcos government denies.

In 2023, PRC Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels interfered with Philippine boats conducting resupply missions to the Sierra Madre. Among the most notable incidents, in February 2023, a PRC Coast Guard vessel targeted a Philippine Coast Guard boat with a military-grade laser, reportedly temporarily blinding some crew members. In August, PRC Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels fired a water cannon and took other actions to obstruct Philippine boats near the shoal. In October, PRC Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels surrounded and collided with a Philippine Coast Guard vessel and another supply vessel. The incident reportedly was the first time Philippine officials stated their vessels were struck by PRC ships.

In December 2023, China engaged in what the Philippine government called a “serious escalation” of aggression in the SCS. PRC vessels reportedly swarmed the area near Second Thomas Shoal and “harassed, blocked, and executed dangerous maneuvers,” resulting in a collision between a PRC Coast Guard ship and a Philippine boat on a resupply mission. Each side accused the other of ramming one of its vessels. Since 2012, the PRC has also harassed and blockaded Philippine fishing boats operating near Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing area for both countries (as well as others). In December 2023, the PRC Coast Guard deployed a water cannon on Philippine vessels attempting to deliver provisions to Filipino fishermen near the shoal, reportedly damaging the engine of one boat.

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