By George Friedman
The Philippine coast guard reported last week that two of its ships were involved in a confrontation with the Chinese navy in the South China Sea. According to the Philippines, the Chinese vessels were engaged in unsafe maneuvers. The incident occurred near the Spratly Islands, which have been a point of contention for years.
This episode is of little military significance since the Philippines and China have been dueling in the region for years. What is significant, however, is the timing. In January, the Chinese launched a significant diplomatic opening with the Philippines. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had accepted an invitation to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in China. The meeting, which seems to have gone well, represented a potential threat to the United States, which was the dominant outside power in the region and had considerable influence in the Philippines. (Relatedly, Marcos met with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington on Monday.)
The Philippines had found itself in – or maneuvered itself into – the tension between China and the United States. A fundamental imperative of Beijing has long been to have unlimited access to the Pacific. China is an exporting power, and its position relative to Taiwan and the Philippines made Beijing vulnerable to a blockade by the U.S. China had concentrated on the northern flank of this problem, trying to seduce or force Taiwan into expelling the U.S. Navy and other American assets in order to secure its access to the Pacific. Another potential route was between the islands of the Philippines, which are plentiful enough to make it difficult for the U.S. to blockade. Finally, there’s the gap between Taiwan and the Philippines that could be used.