GeneralChinese Coast Guard Clashes with Filipino Vessels: the Global...

Chinese Coast Guard Clashes with Filipino Vessels: the Global Stakes in a Territorial Dispute


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In recent months, Chinese Coast Guard vessels, responsible for policing maritime areas under Chinese jurisdiction, have repeatedly obstructed Filipino vessels responsible for resupply missions to support troops stationed on the Sierra Madre – a deliberately beached, decrepit old warship that embodies Filipino claims to a small, uninhabited, but fiercely contested reef in the South China Sea, close to the disputed Nansha or Spratley Island Chain. As tensions rise, the United States (U.S.) has sought to remind China of its longstanding pledge to defend the Philippines in the event of an attack, but why does it matter?

The South China Sea is pivotal to supply chains in every industry, all around the world. More than $5 trillion worth, or 60% of the world’s total maritime commerce, passes through the South China Sea each year. Wheat and grain, petrol and diesel, the mobile phones we scroll and the electronic chips that power them, the cars we drive and the tools and machinery that makes building them possible all pass through this area of sea bordering the Southeast Asia mainland.

Any potential conflict risks disrupting global trade, and if this happens, governments around the world will face angry citizens demanding answers as to why they can’t purchase their favourite products and services. This means that incidents such as Chinese Coast Guards confronting Filipino vessels using a military grade-laser, firing water cannons, and more recently a series of minor collisions between the two sides’ vessels are deserving of our attention.

A Filipino supply ship attempts a resupply mission to troops stationed on the Sierra Madre. Nikkei Asia, 2023.

So, what’s the story of the Philippines and China territorial conflict, and why are the United States so keen to get involved? Below, we offer an analysis on the origins of the territorial dispute, the two sides competing perspectives, and future prospects.

Neither China or the Philippines are willing to concede anything in their competing territorial claims to the South China Sea

Home to an abundance of untapped natural resources, including vast oil and gas reserves, it is unsurprising the South China Sea is the site of a geopolitical dispute amassing over half-a-dozen countries. With neither China nor the Philippines willing to concede anything in their competing territorial claims, and the U.S. reiterating its commitment to enforce its Mutual Defence treaty with the Philippines in the event of an attack, the margin for error in avoiding a regional conflict is increasingly small.

The China-Philippines territorial dispute centres on international law, specifically the 1982 UNCLOS agreement. Both nations, as signatories, are to adhere to the convention’s principle granting exclusive rights to resources within a 200-nautical-mile boundary (or EEZ), encompassing islands like Nansha/Spratley.

Manila argue the Islands are part of its existing exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Its claim is supported by an international court ruling in 2016 that deemed Chinese claims unlawful. China declined to participate having already agreed to settle South China Sea related disputes bilaterally in a separate legal document agreed by regional body ASEAN – the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Beijing therefore describes the international court ruling as ‘null and void’.

Competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. Reuters, 2023.

Beijing has continued to press territorial claims in accordance with its infamous nine-dash line, an invisible boundary line which delineates Chinese and non-Chinese territory, citing evidence of historical rights granted through early exploration dating back centuries. The nine-dash line covers virtually all of the South China Sea and therefore overlaps with the competing territorial claims of many of its neighbours.

The U.S. are directly involved in the dispute for multiple reasons

The Philippines is the United States’ (U.S.) longest standing treaty ally in the Indo-Pacific and the U.S. has reiterated that coast guard altercations do fall under formal commitments to defend the Philippines in the event of attack. This would set off a regional conflict between the world’s two great powers. So are we on the verge of a U.S.-China military confrontation in the South China Sea?

It’s a possibility. In addition to its commitments to defend the Philippines, given the sheer volume of international trade flowing through the region, ensuring shipping routes remain unaffected by territorial disputes has become the main priority of U.S. military patrols in the region. The U.S. therefore has a vested interest in the region.

The Chinese view differs. The Philippines is Taiwan’s neighbour to the south. The narrow straits around the Philippines and Taiwan are covered by undersea internet cables which act as vital channels for U.S. naval forces patrolling the region. U.S. military primacy and its economic dominance go hand-in-hand so it is easy to see why it would be in the U.S. interest to limit Chinese defence capabilities by any means possible.

The U.S. and Chinese perspectives are at direct odds with one another, hence the risk that with any escalation, a far greater regional conflict could flare up between the two superpowers.

Despite recent flare-ups, we are witnessing some slow signs of progress

Leaders of the Philippines and China, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Xi Jinping, recently met on the side-lines of the APEC Summit in San Francisco. With the former attesting, “we tried to come up with mechanisms to lower the tensions in the South China Sea”, and later adding, “I do not think anybody wants to go to war”.

China and ASEAN recently agreed to a deadline of 2026 to finalize negotiations on a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea. Since 2002, South China Sea claimant states have hoped for a COC to which all parties agree to abide by in regulating the area. Such a mechanism, it is believed, would go a long way toward de-escalating tensions in the region.

Nevertheless, Beijing’s very public stance insisting on the legitimacy of its nine-dash line means it is questionable whether it would make concessions behind closed doors for the sake of reaching a legally-binding COC. Likewise, in acknowledging Chinese claims, stakeholders such as the Philippines would have to undergo a significant change of heart and willingly secede territory which is difficult to foresee given the history. The U.S.’s rather murky role as mediator only complicates an already opaque geopolitical landscape.

Shane Green
Shane Green
Shane Green is a freelance journalist and scholar of international relations based in Seoul, South Korea. He has previously worked in local economic development and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Politics from the University of Manchester. You can visit his personal blog at:

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