The South China Sea is a hotspot for confrontation between China and the West, and it’s heating up this week. In response to a small-scale U.S.-Philippine patrol in the Philippine EEZ – the first of its kind in a long time – China’s PLA Navy was “at the scene and on high alert” with a series of live-fire drills.
“The Philippines rallied forces from outside the region and conducted a patrol in the South China Sea, stirred up tensions and troubles and hyped the event,” PLA Southern Theater Command spokesman Senior Colonel Tian Junli said in a statement.
If Manila “rallied forces from outside the region,” it did not rally very many. The activity this week consisted of one lightly-armed U.S. patrol ship, an Independence-class LCS, along with three Philippine Navy vessels. A handful of U.S. Air Force F-15 Eagles flew overwatch with fighters from the Philippine Air Force, and a P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol plane accompanied the force.
“The more the Philippines provokes, the heavier it will end up landing,” warned Zhang Junshe, a researcher at the People’s Liberation Army Naval Military Academic Research Institute. “The only right path for the Philippines is to return to talks and negotiations with China.”
China claims the vast majority of the South China Sea as its own sovereign territory, including large swathes of its neighbors’ EEZs. It has built a string of military bases atop half a dozen reefs in the Spratly Islands, and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. recently warned that China is eyeing other land features even closer to the Philippines’ home islands – some within 60 miles of shore.
Philippine forces often face off with the China Coast Guard and Chinese maritime militia at Second Thomas Shoal, where China has set up a blockade around a Philippine military base. The resupply missions typically meet stiff Chinese resistance in the form of near-collisions, “boxing,” water cannons and (occasionally) laser illumination. The U.S. government has threatened to activate its mutual defense treaty relationship with the Philippines if the confrontations turn into an exchange of fire.
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