How Is The Philippines Preparing For Conflict In The South China Sea? – Analysis


By Ava Pressman

(FPRI) — On February 2, 2023, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III announced the temporary return of American troops to four new military bases in the Philippines, restarting a military presence there that has been dormant for thirty years. These four new bases are concentrated on the island of Luzon in the north and Palawan in the west, augmenting five original sites across the Philippines.

This decision, which strengthened the US presence in the Indo-Pacific, marked a new level of action against China as it continues aggressive maritime pursuits in the South China Sea. With this threat in mind, the US is reaffirming its strong ties with the Philippines due to its geographic position, despite the previous Duterte administration’s alignment with China. The Philippines’ strategic location cannot be overstated; with its northernmost inhabited point only 93 miles from Taiwan and its Western coast bordering the South China Sea, the Philippines is at the center of a theater of China’s influence. Thus, the re-entry of US troops onto Filipino bases signals a new stage of US preparation for countering China, but not without significant impacts on the Philippines. 

When US troops last left the Philippines in 1992, many Filipinos treated it as a celebratory end to a colonial-esque occupation. However, the Philippines is now cognizant of the increasing threat of China, with the current president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. accepting this temporary return of US troops to Filipino military bases and steering US-Philippines relations back to their previous strength. One month after Marcos allowed US troops to reoccupy bases, his approval ratings stood at 78%, demonstrating solid support among Filipinos. On the other hand, some left-wing political groups are protesting Marcos’ recent closeness with the US, especially after his recent meeting with President Biden in May. Nevertheless, Filipinos by and large seem to understand the need for Marcos’ actions in light of the significant history and magnitude of the tensions with China. 

Manila sidling up to the United States military is a response to a mounting conflict with a long history. The PRC made its first official claim in the South China Sea in 1947, and it has disputed neighbors’ claims ever since. For the past decade, China has been building military infrastructure on small islands, atolls, and reefs in the sea, including runways, ports, and radar facilities. This infrastructure interferes with fishing, trading, and land protection of other countries. Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan also dispute China over its various territorial claims in the sea.

Notably, the Philippines instituted arbitral proceedings with the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in 2016, arguing that China’s actions violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. After the court ruled in the Philippines’ favor, China called the decision “illegal, null, and void” and continued to occupy the islands. Despite this blatant disregard for Philippine sovereignty, President Rodrigo Duterte still valued China as a trading partner and strengthened diplomatic relations, signaling a prioritization of economic opportunities rather than a continued fight with a much stronger neighbor over these small islands. However, the consequences are now being felt by the Filipino fishermen who face greater competition with Chinese fleets and declining incomes. They say that Duterte’s failure to adequately contest Beijing’s rejection of the ruling caused their current plight and the increasing tensions between China, the Philippines, and the United States. 

China’s construction projects in the South China Sea have acutely harmed the Philippines’ economy. The sea is rich in natural resources and the abundant marine life, especially in areas such as Scarborough Shoal, is of significant value to the Filipino fishing industry. Chinese building, such as pumping sediment from the seafloor to form new islands, significantly damages marine life and blocks Filipino fishing vessels. China is unfazed by the fact that the islands it has taken over lie in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, the area of its surrounding waters where the Philippines has jurisdiction over resources. 

China is not occupying and building infrastructure on the islands in the South China Sea simply to deter other countries from claiming them. The building campaigns are most likely forms of preparation for action against Taiwan, which Beijing describes as a “renegade province.” Taiwan has governed independently since 1949, but China “vows to eventually unify Taiwan,” a move that US officials warn may occur in the next few years by military invasion or a complete blockade of the Taiwan Strait. China’s conduct nearby, including the firing of ballistic missiles over Taiwanese airspace and close calls with American and British ships in the surrounding seas, suggest that such an invasion may be approaching. 

By virtue of the Philippines’ location, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would greatly impact the Philippines. War would cause significant issues such as an influx of Taiwanese refugees and overseas foreign workers, and the prospect of armed conflict spreading to Philippine waters and soil. Furthermore, America’s occupation of Filipino bases brings potential war even closer to Filipinos, who want no part of a great-power war. 

Chinese officials believe that the United States has been “ganging up” on China ever since their endorsement of the 2016 Court of Arbitration case, and now even more so with their military presence in the Philippines. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning criticized the February return of US troops to the Philippines: “Out of self-interest, the United States continues to strengthen its military deployment in the region with a zero-sum mentality, which is exacerbating tension in the region and endangering regional peace and stability. … Countries in the region should remain vigilant against this and avoid being coerced and used by the United States.” 

Under current President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the Philippines has not lain helpless to China’s advances on islands they deem to be their own. In fact, the Philippines’ recent efforts to occupy Ren’ai reef, a tiny islet near the Spratly Islands, were “slammed” by China, saying “the Philippines’ actions seriously infringe upon China’s sovereignty, violate its own commitments, and go against international law and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed between China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.” This statement, released by a spokesperson from the China Coast Guard on August 8, shows that the conflict in the South China Sea remains hot, and that the Philippines is committed to defending its territory. 

Furthermore, on September 25, the Philippine Coast Guard removed a Chinese floating barrier blocking the entrance to Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, in a clear act of opposition to Chinese territorial claims in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The Coast Guard said in a statement, “The barrier posed a hazard to navigation, a clear violation of international law … It also hinders the conduct of fishing and livelihood activities of Filipino fisherfolk.” 

Ultimately, the Philippines is one of many countries in the Indo-Pacific that are being forced to reckon with US-China conflict. No one, leaders and citizens alike, wants to choose a side, but Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasingly aggressive behavior has forced the Philippines to do so. After the PRC-friendly Duterte administration, the new Marcos government revitalized its historic relationship with the United States, recognizing that hosting American troops is a meaningful step toward protecting Philippine sovereignty and promoting deterrence in the South China Sea. Furthermore, it is also crucial for American interests to protect regional stability and prevent a war with China by keeping a presence in the Philippines. However, the effectiveness of this deterrence is unclear given Xi’s increasingly threatening foreign policy actions and bold ambitions to reclaim Taiwan before the end of his tenure, so it is more important than ever for a muscular US-Philippines relationship. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

  • About the author: Ava Pressman is pursuing a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Music at Swarthmore College. She served as an intern with the National Security Program at FPRI in Summer 2023.
  • Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

8 thoughts on “How Is The Philippines Preparing For Conflict In The South China Sea? – Analysis

  • December 5, 2023 at 1:22 pm

    Insightful summary. It could be subtitled: “How to deal with a bully.” China’s participation in the international rule-based order seems only to extend as far as its own perceived interest. Hardly can it be surprising to China that other nations will do the same, and seek friends along the way to help them.

  • December 5, 2023 at 11:42 pm

    You should have mentioned that the Philippines has oil deposits in the contested Islands that’s why China is intent in robbing.the Philippines of rich oil deposits.

  • December 6, 2023 at 12:28 am

    There are a few misconceptions in this article. I’m an American living in the Philippines (11+ years already), and many of my partner’s extended family makes their livelihood from fishing in the West Philippine Sea. First, the addition of four bases to the EDCA agreement is not a new deployment of US troops. I live in Cabanatuan City and nearby Fort Magsaysay has had US troops stationed there for years under EDCA. Even after the US left it’s bases at Clark and Subic in 1991, there have always been US troops rotating through the Philippines for defense cooperation exercises and disaster relief. The main purpose of the EDCA is to help improve the Philippines own military facilities, improve training of it’s personel and interoperability with US and other allied forces, and most importantly preposition US assets that will assist in disaster relief. Even under Duterte the EDCA agreement continued and joint exercises with the US continued. Despite Duterte’s bluster and threats, there was significant domestic pushback against his anti-US rhetoric from both the AFP, his own Defense Department and Department of Foreign Affairs, the Philippine Congress, and much of the local media. Nothing actually changed under Duterte, and most of China’s economic promises have failed to materialize. In fact, the Philippines is cancelling several Chinese contracts and projects that have languished even as I write this.

    China’s characterization of this is a myth and part of their propaganda campaign to sow a narrative of this being a case of the US interfering and stirring up trouble in the region. China’s disputes are with its ASEAN neighbors, most notably the Philippines and Vietnam, and the US is a treaty ally of the Philippines as well as being committed to freedom of navigation in international waters. Over $3.5 trillion worth of goods ship through the South China Sea every year, so this is a vital shipping lane to countries all over the world.

    In addition to strengthening its long existing ties with the US, the Philippines is working closely with many regional powers and neighbors on bolstering it’s military capabilities and even joint actions and patrols of the West Philippine Sea. These include but are not limited to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Australia. European powers like the UK and France have also joined in. Canada is also a major partner, and even countries as diverse as India and Israel have supported the Philippines in its rights and provided weapon systems to the country.

    I’ve just scratched the surface here, but this is not some super power standoff. It’s a case of neighboring nations and the world standing up to Chinese aggression and bullying of smaller neighboring nations.

    • December 6, 2023 at 8:08 am

      Yes Philippines is not a rich country and
      and cannot afford to lose territory to

  • December 6, 2023 at 3:02 am

    CCP bullying has got to stop. Nutural peaceful countries in the area has had enough of CCP forceful evil coercion tactics. Taiwan a free democratic country shall remain FREE or die defending its FREEDOM. Look at what happened to Hongkong?? CCP LIES and CHEAT any agreement. No more FREEDOM for HK.

  • December 6, 2023 at 3:24 am

    China is a lieing Nation and is out to steal resources from neighboring Countries and will continue to do this UNTILL the world stands up to such terrony.Russia is the same way. These Countries need to be held accountable for the damages being done to resources that is not their’s and have been told that it’s not their’s but continues to brake international law!!!

  • December 6, 2023 at 3:50 am

    It’s rather a useless topic being entertained by malicious minds. Think of your reason/s to go to WAR with China: 1 dilapidated ship getting a preservative treat?, 2 pieces of submerged rocks that surfaces during low tide that doesn:t contribute to the economy at all; Daily Fish catch barely to feed a few families? Our main BIG Battle is How to keep the price of rice at PhP 20.00 NOT how to defend against a World Super-Power.v

  • December 6, 2023 at 5:14 am

    The Philippine preparation for conflictvwith China is to hide behind the coat tails of Uncle Sam. This means letting the US taxpayers foot their government’s defense bill. This is so that the current government, instead of spending the Philippine national wealth for the nation’s defense, can transfer this wealth to individual bureaucrat pockets big time.


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