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Analysis

Who Owns Spratly Islands?

China Taiwan Vietnam Brunei Philippines: Who Owns Spratly Islands?

The Spratly Islands, a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea, stretch off the coasts of Malaysia, southern Vietnam, and the Philippines. This archipelago comprises of islands, islets, cays, and over 100 reefs, sometimes forming sunken ancient atolls. Despite covering an area of over 425,000 square kilo meters, the islands have less than 2 square kilo meters (490 acres) of naturally occurring land. They were named after British whaling captain Richard Spratly, who sighted Spratly Island in 1843.

Strategically located along vital shipping routes, the Spratly Islands present significant geopolitical and economic opportunities as well as challenges in Southeast Asia. Although largely uninhabited, they are crucial for establishing international borders due to their rich fishing grounds and potential reserves of natural gas and oil. While civilian settlements exist on a few islands, approximately 45 islands, cays, reefs, and shoals host military installations from Malaysia, China (PRC), Taiwan (ROC), the Philippines, and Vietnam. Additionally, Brunei claims an exclusive economic zone encompassing the uninhabited Louisa Reef in the southeastern Spratly Islands.

In 1939, the Spratly Islands were coral islets mainly inhabited by seabirds. Though naturally consisting of 19 islands, a 1986 Chinese source notes 14 islands or islets, 6 banks, 113 submerged reefs, 35 underwater banks, and 21 underwater shoals. The northeastern area, known as “Dangerous Ground,” is perilous for navigation due to its numerous low islands, sunken reefs, and degraded, submerged atolls with coral that often rises abruptly from depths exceeding 1,000 meters (3,000 feet). Each island is a cay, or sand island, formed on an ancient, eroded, and buried coral reef. The Spratly Islands, composed of biogenic carbonate lack significant agricultural land, and few possess reliable sources of drinkable water. However, their resources include huge reserves of natural gas, oil, seafood, and guano. Economic activities in the region have historically included commercial fishing, shipping, guano mining, and oil and gas extraction, with tourism emerging more recently. Global shipping lanes near the Spratly Islands further enhances their strategic importance.

Let us dive deep for a deep analysis of, “Who Owns the Spratly Islands?”

Ownership Claims

The Spratly Islands, comprising over 100 small islands and reefs, are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and potentially significant gas and oil reserves. Various countries claim parts of the islands: Malaysia and the Philippines have partial claims, while China, Taiwan, and Vietnam claim the entire archipelago. Approximately 45 islands are occupied by relatively small military units from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Although Brunei has not officially claimed the southern reef, it has asserted a portion of its continental shelf, overlapping with the reef since 1985, and claims an exclusive economic zone in the area.

The territorial dispute over the Spratly Islands involves Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, with each nation seeking to advance its territorial claims. This conflict is marked by diplomatic deadlock and military pressure, including the occupation of disputed territories.

The majority of the “maritime features” in the Spratly Islands have multiple names: an international name typically in English, Chinese names that may vary between the PRC and ROC, names used by the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia, and occasionally names with European origins (such as French, Portuguese, Spanish, or British). For example, Spratly Island is also known as Storm Island.

The strategic location of the region allows nations to project military power and monitor maritime activity. The Philippines claims part of the region under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a convention partially ratified by the nations involved in the dispute. However, only China (PRC), Taiwan (ROC), and Vietnam have asserted historical sovereignty over the islands.

PRC & ROC Claims

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) bases its claims to the Spratly Islands on historical evidence rather than the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Despite signing the UNCLOS on July 29, 1994, the PRC maintains that it owns the entirety of the Spratly Islands. Similarly, the Republic of China (ROC), which governed Mainland China until 1949 and has since been limited to Taiwan, claims all the Spratly Islands.

China asserts that the islands were discovered during the Han dynasty in 2 BC, and supposedly marked on maps from the Eastern Han and Eastern Wu periods. However, there are no surviving maps from these eras, leaving the current Chinese government to substantiate these claims. The Yuanshi, an official history commissioned by the Ming dynasty in 1369, suggests that several islands, possibly the Spratlys, were considered Chinese territory since the Yuan dynasty in the 12th century. Maps from the Qing dynasty (1755-1912) also reportedly marked these islands as Chinese territory. Archaeological findings of Chinese coins and pottery in the islands are used as evidence by the PRC, although these artifacts likely came from passing Chinese junks.

In the 19th century, Europeans noted that Chinese fishermen from Hainan spent part of the year in the Spratlys. The British made the first formal legal claims in 1877. China protested German surveying efforts in 1883, and dispatched naval missions to the islands in 1902 and 1907, marking them with flags and monuments. The Republic of China, which succeeded the Qing dynasty, continued to assert sovereignty over the Spratlys and Paracels. Japan took control of the islands from France in 1939, but after World War II, the Allied forces designated the Republic of China to accept Japanese surrenders in these islands.

The Republic of China garrisoned Itu Aba (Taiping) Island in 1946, raising Chinese flags and establishing markers, despite French objections. The ROC’s 1947 map depicted its U-shaped claim over the entire South China Sea, including the Spratlys and Paracels. Taiwan maintained a garrison on Itu Aba from 1946 to 1950 and resumed it in 1956, considered an “effective occupation” of the islands. Despite the PRC providing geographic baselines to the UN in 1996, excluding the Spratlys, Taiwan resisted Philippine attempts to establish a presence in the islands before 1971.

In 2024, China continued to assert its claims over the Spratly Islands, citing historical sovereignty based on ancient maps and records. The Chinese government argues that these documents demonstrate a long-standing presence and control, justifying their contemporary claims. This forms part of China’s broader strategy to establish dominance in the South China Sea, despite overlapping claims from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. China’s expansive claim is encapsulated by the “New Ten Dash Line,” covering approximately 90% of the South China Sea. Despite a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which found no legal basis for China’s extensive claims, Beijing rejected the decision and continued to build and militarize artificial islands in the Spratlys. This includes constructing runways, missile systems, and other military infrastructure, significantly increasing regional tensions.

Diplomatically, China has engaged in prolonged negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to establish a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, though progress remains slow and contentious. 

Philippines Claim

In 2024, the Philippines continues to assert its claims over portions of the Spratly Islands, emphasizing both historical presence and proximity to its territory. The Philippines bases its claims on historical evidence of Filipino fishermen using these islands for centuries and their location within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Key features claimed by the Philippines include Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, the largest island in the Spratlys, as well as Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef.

The Philippines maintains a small military presence on some of these islands and has pursued various legal and diplomatic avenues to support its claims. Notably, the Philippines won a landmark case in 2016 when the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines against China’s expansive claims. Despite this legal victory, the Philippines faces challenges in enforcing the ruling and managing tensions in the region. The country also seeks to strengthen regional cooperation through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and engages in bilateral discussions with China and other claimant countries.

Likewise, the “Moro” people refer to as the Filipino Muslims and their region in the southern Philippines. According to information from the Sultan of Sulu, the ancestors of the Moro people owned the Spratly Islands before Spanish colonists arrived in the sixteenth century. They claim that the Spratly Islands, are part of the ancestral property of the Moro people and thus outside Chinese jurisdiction and the Spratly Archipelago is part of the Sulu Sea, within the area known as the West Philippine Sea, which the Philippines claims as part of its EEZ.

Vietnam’s Claim

Vietnam’s historical connection to the Spratly Islands, known as Truong Sa, dates back centuries, with records of Vietnamese occupation, resource exploitation, and governmental control extending to the 1600s, although their involvement likely began much earlier. Vietnam’s claim is based on the principle of terra nullius (“land belonging to no state”), asserting that it has owned and occupied the territory since at least the 17th century. According to international law, “The state of Vietnam took effective possession of the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes long ago when they were not under the sovereignty of any nation.”

Vietnam emphasizes its historical exercise of authority and control over the islands. The first known instance of formal sovereignty was in the 1600s when the archipelago was placed under the administrative jurisdiction of the Binh Son district. For the next two centuries, pre-colonial Vietnamese governments maintained uncontested state sovereignty over the archipelago. Even after France assumed control of Vietnam through the 1887 Treaty, European powers upheld and strengthened Vietnamese authority over Truong Sa on behalf of the Vietnamese state. The French acquisition of the islands further validates Vietnam’s administrative sovereignty claims in the modern era.

After World War II, when Japan relinquished its claims to the islands, the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) continued to assert sovereignty over Truong Sa. This included protesting foreign claims, occupying the archipelago, and re-annexing the chain in 1956. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, as the successor to the RVN, has consistently upheld Vietnamese sovereignty, even engaging in armed combat to protect its control over the islands. The Vietnamese government declared: “The state of Vietnam has always actively defended its rights and titles against all schemes and acts of encroachment upon sovereignty, territorial integrity, and interests of Vietnam in connection with the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagos.”

In the contemporary era, Vietnam occupies up to 24 features in the Spratly Islands, more than twice as many as any other claimant. At least five of these features are garrisoned by around 1,000 soldiers or sailors and construction workers. This de facto control bolsters Vietnam’s historical claims. The Law of the Sea Convention of 1982 further supports Vietnam’s rights to the Truong Sa.

Vietnam argues that the Truong Sa Islands do not generate their own continental shelves or exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Claimant states, according to Vietnam, should be entitled to a full 200-nautical-mile EEZ generated from their main coastal or large-island land areas, with high seas areas beyond 200 nautical miles governed by the International Seabed Authority. Vietnamese sovereignty claims extend to the entire archipelago, asserting a 12-nautical-mile territorial water zone for each island. Additionally, Vietnam claims a 350-nautical-mile continental shelf extending from its southeast coast towards Truong Sa. This claim is supported by seafloor geography, unlike similar claims by Malaysia, Brunei, or the Philippines.

Vietnam’s maritime heritage is deep-rooted, with historical accounts suggesting a strong seafaring tradition. While it is debatable whether the Vietnamese were the first to discover, manage, or use the islands, there is no denying their long history with Truong Sa. Vietnam’s historical claims, based on first occupation and ancient sovereignty, are validated by continuous dominance over most of the archipelago for over 300 years. This ongoing sovereignty serves as the foundation for Hanoi’s legal claims.

Vietnam has demonstrated its political will to maintain control over the islands through diplomatic and military means. This is partly in response to perceived Chinese encroachment into Southeast Asia. Vietnam’s history of resisting foreign occupation, including conflicts with China in 1979, the proxy war in Cambodia, and the 1988 fighting in Truong Sa, signifies this determination. The Vietnamese military’s persistent presence in Truong Sa is evidence of Hanoi’s resolve not to relinquish what it considers historic territory, even while expressing willingness to take the case to the International Court of Justice and engage in multilateral negotiations. Thus, Vietnam’s resolve to assert its claims and influence over the Spratly Islands remains steadfast, similar to the relentless tides washing over the archipelago.

Malaysia Claim

Six additional countries—Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—have maritime borders with Malaysia. Compared to the rest of Malaysia’s marine area, these borders are more pronounced in the South China Sea due to the concentration of littoral countries. Malaysia’s South China Sea maritime area is essentially divided in half, with Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) separating the two sections. The eastern segment includes the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo, while the western part is along the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The East Malaysian portion of the South China Sea is the most disputed, particularly due to conflicting claims over the Spratly Islands.

Malaysia claims twelve maritime features in the Spratly Islands, which include atolls, rocks, reefs, shoals, and islands. Of these, Malaysia maintains a physical presence on five features: Terumbu Ubi (Ardasier Reef), Terumbu Siput (Erica Reef), Terumbu Mantanani (Mariveles Reef), Terumbu Peninjau (Investigator Reef), and Pulau Layang-Layang (Swallow Reef). Two other features, Pulau Amboyna Kecil (Amboyna Cay) and Terumbu Laksamana (Commodore Reef), are occupied by Vietnam and the Philippines, respectively, despite falling within Malaysia’s claimed area. In 1978, Malaysian special forces briefly landed on Pulau Amboyna and erected markers, which were later removed by Vietnamese forces.

Malaysia’s efforts to assert its claims escalated with the occupation of Pulau Layang-Layang (Swallow Reef) by special operations forces in May 1983. This action marked the beginning of incremental claims over other locations in the region. Responses provided by the Malaysian government to Senator Tunku Abdul Aziz on matters pertaining to the South China Sea and the Spratly Islands reflect the country’s official stance on these claims. In 2024, Malaysia continued to assert its claims over portions of the Spratly Islands, particularly those closest to its coast, based on their proximity to Malaysia’s EEZ as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Key features claimed by Malaysia include Swallow Reef (Layang-Layang), Amboyna Cay, and Louisa Reef. Malaysia adopts a diplomatic and low-key approach to its claims, emphasizing peaceful resolution and active participation in bilateral and multilateral discussions within the ASEAN framework. This strategy aims to manage and resolve disputes in the South China Sea amicably while affirming Malaysia’s territorial rights.

Latest Advancements

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. of the Philippines took a decisive stance against China when he assumed office in June 2022, rejecting the more accommodating approach of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. The Second Thomas Shoal, located within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, has become a focal point of intense conflict between the Philippines and China. To assert its territorial claims in the region, which it refers to as the West Philippine Sea, the Philippines purposefully grounded a ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, in 1999. This vessel has since been a symbol of Philippine presence, with the Philippine Coast Guard conducting monthly resupply missions to support the military personnel stationed on board.

Tensions escalated in 2023 when Chinese Coast Guard vessels began using increasingly aggressive tactics to obstruct Philippine resupply missions. These confrontations have grown more frequent and severe, with incidents involving collisions, water cannon attacks, and the use of military-grade lasers by the Chinese Coast Guard against Philippine ships. These aggressive actions have significantly heightened hostilities in the region.

In response to rising tensions with China, the Philippines has enhanced its alliances with neighboring countries in the Indo-Pacific region including the signing of agreements to expand arms exports, joint military exercises, and base access with the United States. The Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines, reaffirmed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in March 2024, ensures that the armed forces, public vessels, and aircraft of both nations operating in the South China Sea are covered under this treaty.

Additionally, Japan has increased its influence in the maritime security domain, supplying military hardware to both Vietnam and the Philippines. This support from Japan is part of a broader effort to strengthen regional security and counterbalance China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea. The Philippines’ strategy under President Marcos highlights a shift towards greater military cooperation and alliance-building to safeguard its territorial integrity and uphold its claims in the disputed waters.

End Note

In summary, the Spratly Islands are claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, while portions are claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines. These overlapping claims have led to significant geopolitical tensions, with various countries establishing military outposts and engaging in diplomatic and legal efforts to assert their sovereignty. The disputes over the Spratly Islands continue to shape the region’s dynamics, influencing international relations and security policies in the South China Sea.

Analysis

Why Marcos South China Sea Policy is better than Duterte?

Why Marcos South China Sea Policy is better than Duterte?

The geopolitical landscape of Southeast Asia is characterized by a complex interplay of national interests, historical tensions, and the strategic maneuverings of global powers. In this scenario, the South China Sea stands out as a particularly contentious region, with overlapping territorial claims and significant economic and security implications. As regional dynamics evolve, so too do the foreign policies of the countries involved. In this context, the Philippines has seen a marked shift in its approach from the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte to that of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. While Duterte’s tenure was noted for its conciliatory stance towards China, Marcos Jr. has adopted a more assertive policy, aligning more closely with the United States and emphasizing the defense of Philippine sovereignty. This shift reflects broader strategic calculations in response to China’s growing assertiveness and the need for stronger defense capabilities. The contrast between the two administrations provides a compelling case study in how nations balance between cooperation and confrontation in pursuit of their national interests.

Background: Duterte’s Approach

As the successor to President Aquino III, President Duterte adopted a markedly more cooperative stance toward China, seeking to avoid conflict over maritime sovereignty. Despite the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling largely favoring the Philippines, Duterte refrained from pursuing these convictions aggressively. Instead, he implemented pragmatic strategies rooted in Realpolitik and Rational Choice, shifting Philippine foreign policy from confrontation to a more nuanced approach. He preferred bilateral discussions over multilateral forums and supported China’s Belt and Road Initiative, aligning with his “Back to Domestic; Build, Build, and Build” campaign slogan focused on economic development and infrastructure. Duterte’s inward-looking strategy relied heavily on Chinese economic incentives to enhance the Philippines’ prosperity. This recalibrated foreign policy aimed for mutual benefits: China restrained the Philippines from assertively acting on the PCA ruling, while the Philippines gained economic and political advantages from Chinese infrastructure investments. Duterte’s approach strained the long-standing US-Philippines relationship, reflecting his vision for a multipolar world order and a distinct regional identity. This independent foreign policy garnered global attention and criticism, revealing the complex trade-offs and uncertainties involved. Consequently, the Philippines’ stance on SCS maritime and territorial claims softened under Duterte’s leadership.

Marcos Jr.’ Policy Shift

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has notably shifted Manila closer to the United States, diverging sharply from the path of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. Marcos appears to be the first Southeast Asian leader to decisively choose between the United States and China. Given the Philippines’ precarious position in the South China Sea and China’s growing regional dominance, Marcos Jr. may have concluded that maintaining a balance is no longer feasible and that, in the event of conflict, unwavering support from Washington is essential. The rising harassment of Philippine boats and marines stationed on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal by China has severely infuriated Marcos Jr., with incidents increasing recently.

In response to these challenges in the West Philippine Sea, President Marcos Jr. reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to maintaining Philippine sovereignty and defending its territory. At the 21st International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, he declared, “We will never allow anyone to detach it from the totality of the maritime domain that renders our nation whole.” Marcos emphasized that he has vowed to uphold this grave responsibility since his first day in office, stating, “I’m not going to give up. Filipinos are unyielding.” He reiterated that the government would make every effort to safeguard the Philippines’ territorial integrity in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 Arbitral Award. “International law, not our imagination, is the source of the boundaries we draw on our waters,” he asserted.

Marcos highlighted that the Philippines defines its boundaries based on international law, not “baseless claims.” He outlined the country’s intentions to improve its defense capabilities and strengthen its ties with foreign nations during his keynote speech at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. He emphasized that the Philippines would enhance its ability to safeguard its interests in both the global commons and its maritime domain as part of the Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept. “We will strengthen our ability to safeguard our interests in the global commons and in our own maritime domain as we work to preserve the rule of law in international affairs,” Marcos declared.

He stressed that diplomacy would continue to be a key component of building the Philippines’ defense capabilities. President Marcos also reaffirmed that ASEAN Centrality would remain a fundamental component of the country’s foreign policy. He noted that the Philippines would strengthen strategic alliances with Australia, Japan, and Vietnam, in addition to its relationship with the United States. The country would also seek closer ties with partners like the Republic of Korea and India. Marcos pointed out that cooperative efforts involving a small number of governments with common interests could “build into pillars that support the architecture of regional stability.” He mentioned pursuing trilateral cooperation in the Celebes Sea with Indonesia and Malaysia and expanding collaboration in the exclusive economic zone with Australia, Japan, and the United States.

Over the past year, the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone has been repeatedly targeted by China’s coast guard and allied fishing vessels, further straining relations between the two countries. Marcos stated that he has been in communication with “friends in the international community” and has met with his defense and security officers to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. “They have offered to help us with what the Philippines requires to protect and secure our sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction,” he said.

The deterioration of ties with China coincides with Marcos’s efforts to strengthen defense ties with the US. Beijing is displeased with his expanded US access to military sites in the Philippines and the inclusion of joint exercises involving air and sea patrols over the South China Sea. The US-Philippines treaty obliges both nations to defend one another in the event of an attack, covering coastguard, civilian, and military vessels in the South China Sea.

Key Actions Under Marcos Jr.

Marcos Jr. emphasized Manila’s right to utilize South China Sea energy resources without first engaging China in a statement released on December 1, 2022. He vowed to “fight” for the rights that belong to his country. Given that the Philippines depend largely on imported fuel, his comments highlighted the urgency of exploring for oil and gas in the strategically significant sea. In the face of a more divided Southeast Asia, Marcos Jr. has resorted to striking a balance between his relations with China and the United States. However, sustaining strategic ambiguity is becoming more and more of a difficult balancing act every day. Beijing is applying more and more pressure. Chinese rocket debris was taken by force from the Philippine Navy in November by the Chinese coast guard.

In order to restart the nation’s slow economic growth, the new president desperately had to acquire investments amidst a severe financial crisis made worse by the pandemic. Beijing might be a trustworthy source, but Chinese investments and the sovereignty risks they pose are touchy political subjects. Protests by the general public against Chinese influence are not unusual in the Philippines, and they may pose a threat to the legitimacy of Marcos Jr.’s administration.

Asia’s strictest foreign investment regulations, found in the Philippines, limit foreign ownership in numerous areas to 40%. This restriction complicates potential agreements on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, even if the Philippines and China were to reach an understanding. Although both nations have shown interest in collaborating with non-governmental organizations for joint exploration, disputed claims have prevented Manila’s PXP Energy Corp, which holds exploration permits in the contested Reed Bank, from finalizing a mutually beneficial deal with China’s National Offshore Oil Corp.

The situation is further complicated by increased U.S. engagement with the Philippines. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. allowed U.S. forces access to four additional Philippine military facilities, raising the total to nine. Under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), U.S. troops are permitted to rotate indefinitely for joint training, equipment prepositioning, and infrastructure development, including runways, fuel storage, and military housing. This move aligns with the Biden administration’s strategy of strengthening a regional security network to counter China, as well as with Philippines efforts to enhance its external defense, particularly in the South China Sea.

China reacted strongly to this development, particularly since two of the new U.S. locations are near Taiwan and southern China. Beijing accused the Philippines of providing staging areas for U.S. military operations, thereby compromising Chinese security. In response, Marcos stated that his administration has no plans to grant the U.S. access to additional military bases. He emphasized that China’s aggressive actions in the disputed South China Sea initially prompted the U.S. military presence in several Philippine camps and locations. At a press conference with foreign correspondents in Manila, Marcos clarified, “The Philippines has no plans to create any more bases or give access to any more bases.”

When questioned about whether the presence of U.S. forces had provoked Chinese actions in the South China Sea, Marcos maintained that American troops were there in response to China’s actions. He cited incidents where Chinese coast guard ships used water cannons and lasers to block Philippine vessels. “These are reactions to what has happened in the South China Sea, to the aggressive actions that we have had to deal with,” he stated. China, on the other hand, blamed the Philippines for instigating conflicts by intruding into its territorial seas and violating an alleged agreement to remove an old Philippine navy vessel stationed at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal. Marcos denied knowledge of any such agreement and declared it void if it ever existed.

Marcos emphasized that the Philippines must take more concrete actions beyond lodging protests concerning incidents in the South China Sea. He referred to a recent event where the Chinese coast guard blocked a routine troop supply run to the Second Thomas Shoal, resulting in a serious injury to a Philippine sailor. While Marcos condemned this as an illegal action, he noted that it did not constitute an armed attack. Despite filing numerous protests, he stressed the need for more substantial measures.

End Note

The contrast between the South China Sea policies of Duterte and Marcos Jr. signify the evolving nature of the Philippines’ approach to maritime sovereignty and international diplomacy. Duterte’s strategy prioritized economic gains through cooperation with China, often at the cost of territorial assertiveness and strained traditional alliances. In contrast, Marcos Jr.’s policy shift reflects a robust defense of Philippine sovereignty, reinforced by stronger ties with the United States and other regional allies. This strategic realignment addresses the immediate challenges posed by China’s assertiveness while positioning the Philippines as a proactive player in maintaining regional stability and upholding international law. As the geopolitical landscape continues to shift, the Marcos administration’s balanced yet assertive stance may provide a more sustainable and secure path for the Philippines in the contentious waters of the South China Sea.

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Analysis

Philippines Air Force Joins Multi-Nation War Games in Australia to Counter China

Philippines Air Force Joins Multi-Nation War Games in Australia to Counter China

In an unprecedented move, the Philippines Air Force has embarked on its first overseas deployment in over six decades. This historic event sees the Philippines joining forces with U.S. and Australian fighter jets for combat practice in northern Australia amidst escalating tensions with China in the South China Sea. This strategic maneuver underscores the Philippines’ commitment to enhancing its defense capabilities and strengthening alliances in response to regional security challenges.

The Pitch Black War Games

The Pitch Black war games, a significant international air combat training activity, took place in Australia’s sparsely populated Northern Territory from July 12 to August 2, 2024. This large-scale exercise included four Philippine FA-50 fighter jets and 162 personnel among approximately 140 aircraft and over 4,000 personnel from 20 nations.

This year’s iteration was the largest in the exercise’s 43-year history, exposing participants to complex scenarios utilizing advanced aircraft and battlespace systems. Aircraft and personnel from the Philippines, Spain, Italy, Papua New Guinea, and embedded personnel from Fiji and Brunei participated for the first time, joining aircraft from countries such as France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and embedded personnel from Canada and New Zealand.

Aircraft operated primarily from RAAF bases in Darwin and Tindal in the Northern Territory, with additional tanker and transport aircraft at RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland. Exercise Pitch Black is Australia’s premier activity for international engagement, held every two years to build stronger ties with like-minded nations.

A Historic Milestone

This deployment marks a significant moment in the history of the Philippines Air Force, as the first time since 1963 that it has taken combat aircraft abroad. On July 10, 2024, four FA-50s and 162 personnel from the Philippine Air Force arrived at RAAF Base in Darwin, marking the first-ever deployment of the country’s fighter jets for drills outside the Philippines.

Royal Australian Air Force Air Commodore Pete Robinson expressed his honor at Australia being chosen for this significant deployment, highlighting the historic nature of the event. The decision to deploy four FA-50s instead of the initially planned six was made to retain more aircraft in the Philippines for domestic operational requirements.

The deployment of the FA-50s to the Pitch Black war games demonstrates the Philippines’ commitment to engaging in multinational military cooperation and improving its own defense capabilities. The FA-50s, which are light combat aircraft, are well-suited for training exercises that involve both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat scenarios. By participating in these exercises, the Philippines Air Force can gain valuable experience and insights into modern combat tactics and technologies.

Enhancing Capabilities

The vast airspace of the Northern Territory provides an ideal environment for enhancing a wide range of capabilities, focusing on the tactical execution of large force employment and offensive counter air and land operations in a multinational coalition environment. The war games involve not only dog fighting but also the use of advanced radar and missile systems for long-range engagements.

Philippine fighter jets worked alongside advanced aircraft such as the F-35A Lightning II, EA-18G Growler, and Su-30MKI Flanker, tackling complex problems against simulated adversaries and ground threats. This includes air-to-air refueling, reconnaissance, and airlift operations, enhancing the capabilities of all participating forces to operate together, improve readiness, and strengthen regional partnerships.

The FA-50s’ participation in these exercises allows the Philippine pilots to train in an environment that mimics real combat conditions. This exposure is crucial for building confidence and proficiency in handling advanced aircraft and executing complex missions. The experience gained from these exercises will be invaluable in guiding the Philippines’ ongoing military modernization efforts.

A United Front

The U.S. F-22 stealth fighter and Australia’s F-35A and F-18 are among the combat aircraft taking part in these war games. The U.S. sent F-22 jets from the 15th Wing based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, to train alongside Australia’s F-35A jets, improving interoperability between their armed forces.

Fast-jet pilots from the U.S. Marine Corps conducted training in offensive counter air, defensive counter air, suppression of enemy air defenses, and strike mission sets during the day and night, demonstrating the depth of interoperability between the two nations.

The collaborative efforts in the Pitch Black war games highlight the importance of interoperability and joint operations among allied forces. By training together, these forces can develop a better understanding of each other’s tactics, procedures, and capabilities. This level of cooperation is essential for effective multinational operations, especially in complex and dynamic combat environments.

The participation of the Philippines in this multinational exercise not only enhances its own defense capabilities but also strengthens its ties with key allies. The ability to operate seamlessly with U.S. and Australian forces is a strategic advantage for the Philippines, particularly in the context of regional security challenges.

The South China Sea Dispute

The South China Sea dispute between the Philippines and China has been a source of tension for many years. The crux of the dispute lies in overlapping territorial claims over the South China Sea, a strategic and resource-rich waterway. China’s extensive claims have led to several direct confrontations, including a clash at the Second Thomas Shoal on June 17, 2024, causing injuries to Filipino navy personnel and damage to military boats.

The encounters between the two nations have grown increasingly tense as Beijing continues to assert its claims to shoals in waters that Manila insists are within its exclusive economic zone. Despite these tensions, both sides have affirmed their commitment to deescalate tensions without prejudice to their respective positions. However, the geopolitical landscape in the South China Sea remains complex and fluid, posing significant challenges to regional stability and international law.

China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, such as the construction of artificial islands and the deployment of military assets, have heightened tensions with neighboring countries, including the Philippines. The strategic importance of the South China Sea, which serves as a major shipping route and is believed to contain significant oil and gas reserves, makes it a focal point of regional and global interest.

China’s Reaction

China’s reaction to the Pitch Black war games was significant. Following the announcement of the exercise, China launched drills in the Taiwan Strait in response to what it perceived as “separatist acts.” These drills involved heavily armed warplanes and staged mock attacks, demonstrating China’s ability to control the seas and prevent foreign involvement.

China’s military maneuvers are a clear signal of its willingness to assert its territorial claims and counter any perceived threats to its interests. The timing of these drills, just days after the announcement of the Pitch Black war games, underscores the geopolitical tensions in the region. China’s actions reflect its broader strategy of demonstrating military strength and deterring foreign intervention in what it considers its sphere of influence.

The Philippines’ participation in the Pitch Black war games can be seen as a response to China’s assertiveness. By strengthening its defense capabilities and engaging in multinational exercises, the Philippines is signaling its determination to protect its territorial integrity and uphold international law. This strategic approach aims to deter potential aggression and contribute to regional stability.

The Philippines’ Defense Strategy

Despite having a mutual defense treaty with the United States, the Philippines is increasingly looking to its own air force and navy as the first line of defense. This shift in strategy is in response to the perceived threat from China, with Manila making concerted efforts to bolster its defense capability.

The Philippines’ defense strategy includes preserving holdings in the disputed sea, deterring coercive actions against Philippine vessels and citizens, and compelling Chinese recognition of and compliance with the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration Award. This multifaceted approach involves strengthening the country’s military capabilities, enhancing regional alliances, and leveraging international legal mechanisms to protect its interests.

In addition to strengthening its military capabilities, the Philippines is forging stronger defense ties with other countries. For instance, the Philippines and Japan recently signed a crucial military agreement permitting the deployment of their forces on each other’s soil, bolstering defense ties between Tokyo and Manila. This agreement, known as the Reciprocal Access Agreement, enhances interoperability and facilitates joint training and exercises, contributing to regional security.

The Philippines’ defense strategy also involves increasing investments in military modernization. The ongoing modernization program aims to equip the Armed Forces of the Philippines with advanced hardware and capabilities to address a wide range of security threats. This includes the acquisition of multirole fighter jets, radars, missile systems, frigates, helicopters, and submarines.

Modernization of the Military

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has embarked on a 15-year modernization program that started in 2012 and will continue through 2027. This program, also known as the Revised Armed Forces Modernization Act, aims to strengthen the AFP’s capability to address counterterrorism and internal threats.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. recently approved a significant military procurement plan, estimated at around $35 billion over the next ten years. This includes acquiring multirole fighter jets, radars, frigates, missile systems, helicopters, and the country’s first submarine fleet.

The modernization program is divided into three phases: Horizon 1 (2013-2017), Horizon 2 (2018-2022), and Horizon 3 (2023-2027). Each phase focuses on different aspects of capability development, with Horizon 3 emphasizing the acquisition of advanced systems and platforms to enhance the country’s defense posture.

Key elements of the modernization program include:

Multirole Fighter Jets: The acquisition of multirole fighter jets, such as the FA-50s, enhances the Philippines’ air defense and strike capabilities.

Frigates and Corvettes: The procurement of additional Jose Rizal-class frigates and missile corvettes improves the country’s naval capabilities, enabling it to protect its maritime interests and conduct various naval operations.

Missile Systems: The acquisition of missile systems, including

surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, enhances the country’s deterrence and defensive capabilities.

Submarine Fleet: The development of a submarine fleet provides the Philippines with a strategic asset for underwater defense and deterrence.

Regional Defense Relationships

The Philippines is actively seeking to establish more regional defense relationships. Recent defense agreements with Australia and Japan indicate a commitment to enhancing interoperability and strengthening defense ties. These agreements contribute to the Philippines’ defense strategy by enhancing its ability to respond to various security threats.

The agreement with Australia, known as the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA), facilitates the rotation of Australian forces in the Philippines and vice versa. This agreement enhances joint training, interoperability, and capacity-building initiatives, strengthening the defense ties between the two countries.

Similarly, the Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japan allows for closer defense cooperation, joint exercises, and logistical support. This agreement reflects the growing strategic partnership between Japan and the Philippines, driven by shared concerns over regional security and the need to uphold international norms.

The Philippines is also engaging in defense cooperation with other countries in the region, such as South Korea, India, and Vietnam. These partnerships involve joint training exercises, defense dialogues, and capacity-building initiatives, contributing to the overall security architecture of the region.

Implications and Future Developments

The Philippines’ participation in the Pitch Black war games is a significant development in its defense strategy, signaling its commitment to enhancing operational readiness and capabilities. This move also underscores the Philippines’ willingness to collaborate with other nations in maintaining regional security.

By participating in these war games, the Philippines is sending a strong message to other countries in the region, including China. This could potentially deter aggressive actions in the South China Sea and contribute to regional peace and stability. However, it could also escalate tensions, highlighting the need for careful management to prevent conflict.

The experience gained from these exercises will be invaluable in guiding the Philippines’ ongoing military modernization efforts. As tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea, the country is demonstrating its commitment to enhancing its defense capabilities and ensuring preparedness for any eventualities.

The Philippines’ strategic approach involves strengthening its military capabilities, enhancing regional alliances, and leveraging international legal mechanisms to protect its interests. By doing so, the Philippines aims to deter potential aggression, uphold international law, and contribute to regional stability.

The future of the South China Sea dispute remains uncertain, with ongoing geopolitical tensions and competing territorial claims. However, the Philippines’ proactive stance and commitment to defense modernization signal its determination to navigate these challenges and safeguard its sovereignty.

In essence, the Philippines’ participation in the Pitch Black war games is a historic milestone that reflects its evolving defense strategy and commitment to regional security. By enhancing its capabilities and strengthening its alliances, the Philippines is positioning itself as a key player in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and beyond.

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Analysis

Philippines Accuses Chinese Ships of Blocking Medical Evacuation

Philippines Accuses Chinese Ships of Blocking Medical Evacuation

I. Introduction

The South China Sea has been a hotbed of territorial disputes for years, with several countries including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei claiming overlapping parts of the maritime region. The area is rich in natural resources and is a vital commercial waterway, making it a strategic point of contention. One such disputed area is the Second Thomas Shoal, known as Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines and Renai Reef in China. The shoal is within the 200-nautical mile (370km) exclusive economic zone of the Philippines but is also claimed by China.

II. Details of the Incident

On July 10, 2024, the Philippines accused Chinese vessels of trying to block the evacuation of a sick soldier from an “illegally grounded warship” at Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippine Navy stated that the patient was taken from the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting vessel that was run aground at Second Thomas Shoal 25 years ago, to Camp Ricarte Station Hospital in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. The Philippine coastguard claimed it had “faced numerous obstructing and delaying manoeuvres” by its Chinese counterpart but “remained steadfast”. This incident marked another escalation in the ongoing territorial dispute between the two nations.

III. Philippine Government’s Response

The Philippine government has strongly condemned the alleged actions of the Chinese vessels. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) lodged a diplomatic protest against China, calling the incident a “blatant infringement of Philippine sovereignty”. The incident has also stirred up nationalist sentiments among the Philippine public, putting pressure on the government to take a tougher stance against China.

IV. China’s Reaction

China rebuked the Philippines, accusing it of “deliberately misleading” the international community. In a statement, the China Coast Guard said it had allowed the Philippines to evacuate the ill person under “humanitarian considerations” and had “monitored and verified” their actions in accordance with the law. Chinese coastguard spokesman Gan Yu stated that the “relevant Philippine parties ignored the facts, maliciously hyped up [accusations], and deliberately misled international cognition”. He affirmed that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the Nansha Islands, also known as the Spratly Islands, including Renai Reef and its surrounding waters.

V. International Reactions

The escalating tensions between China and the Philippines have drawn international attention and elicited responses from various leaders and experts. Collin Koh, a maritime affairs expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, suggests that a second legal defeat for China in the international court would not reflect well on China’s reputation. He believes that the seven years since the last international ruling is a long time, and a new case building on the previous one would inject renewed vigor into global scrutiny of China’s actions in the South China Sea.

US President Joe Biden has warned China that the US will defend the Philippines in case of any attack in the disputed South China Sea. This reiteration of the US’s “ironclad” defense commitment to the Philippines underscores the geopolitical implications of the dispute.

VI. Historical Context

The South China Sea dispute is not a recent development but has deep historical roots. The region has been a point of contention for centuries, with various Southeast Asian nations asserting their claims over different parts of the sea. The modern dispute, however, can be traced back to the 20th century when several nations began to assert their sovereignty over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

The Second Thomas Shoal, in particular, has been a flashpoint in the dispute. The Philippines grounded the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting naval vessel, on the shoal in 1999 to reinforce its claim. China, however, views this as an illegal occupation and has maintained a constant maritime presence around the shoal.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a case against China’s claims in the South China Sea. The court declared China’s “nine-dash line” claim, which covers nearly the entire South China Sea, as having no legal basis. However, China rejected the ruling, and the decision did not lead to a significant change in the status quo.

VII. Analysis

The ongoing dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea has significant geopolitical implications. For China, asserting its claims in the South China Sea is a matter of national pride and a demonstration of its growing global power. It is also strategically important due to the sea’s rich natural resources and its importance as a commercial waterway.

For the Philippines, the dispute is about protecting its territorial integrity and its rights to exploit the resources within its exclusive economic zone. The recent incident could further strain Philippines-China relations and push the Philippines to seek stronger security ties with other countries, particularly the United States.

The involvement of international leaders and organizations like the US, ASEAN, and Japan further complicates the issue. The US, in particular, has been vocal in its support for the Philippines and its opposition to China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea. This could potentially escalate tensions between the US and China, two of the world’s superpowers.

VIII. Conclusion

The South China Sea dispute continues to be a complex issue involving territorial claims, national pride, and international law. The recent incident involving the Philippines and China is just the latest in a series of escalating tensions in the region.

As tensions escalate, it is crucial for all parties involved to engage in peaceful dialogue and negotiations to prevent further conflicts. The role of international law and multilateral institutions is also critical in resolving these disputes and ensuring the preservation of the region’s rich biodiversity.

However, the resolution of the South China Sea dispute is not just about resolving territorial claims. It is also about managing the rise of China as a global power, maintaining regional stability, and upholding the rules-based international order. The way this dispute is handled could set a precedent for other territorial disputes around the world and shape the future of international relations in the Indo-Pacific region.

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