China-Philippines ties on ‘brink of total breakdown’: unpacking the collapse

What began as a story of infrastructure cooperation has morphed into an epic tale of betrayal and confrontation, the once-chummy relationship between Manila and Beijing giving way to escalating geopolitical rivalry. The rise and fall of those Northrail pillars now bookend a new, more ominous chapter.

At the heart of the falling out is Beijing’s assertion, through its “nine-dash-line” – lately expanded to 10-dashes – that it owns nearly all of the South China Sea. Its expansive maritime claim has led China to encroach on waters over which the Philippines also claims sovereignty.

“I think relations are the worst in recent memory because the hostility and aggression of China at both the strategic and tactical levels are palpable,” former senator and retired naval officer Antonio Trilllanes told This Week in Asia.

Indeed, ties are “at their lowest ebb and on the brink of total breakdown”, according to Teresita Ang-See, founder of Kaisa, an organisation representing Chinese-Filipinos that aims to foster understanding and tolerance between cultures.

“Never have the churning waters reached boiling point as now,” she said.

A routine resupply mission to a remote outpost on the Second Thomas Shoal turned violent on June 17, when Chinese vessels launched an attack on Filipino forces within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In the chaos, a Filipino special forces soldier lost his thumb after his boat was deliberately rammed by a Chinese coastguard vessel.

Chinese coastguard personnel wielding axes and machetes then boarded the Philippine boats, trashing equipment, seizing phones and firearms, and towing the vessels away – a shocking escalation in the bitter territorial dispute over the strategic waterway.

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Chinese and Philippine ships clash in first incident under Beijing’s new coast guard law

Chinese and Philippine ships clash in first incident under Beijing’s new coast guard law

The Philippine military was quick to condemn China’s “barbaric actions” in a post on the X social media platform.

Beijing, however, offered a starkly different account. Chinese officials claimed their personnel were simply defending Chinese territory, despite the fact that the Second Thomas Shoal is situated more than 1,100km away from the nearest Chinese land mass and is some 194km from Philippine shores. The officials also alleged the resupply mission was violating a prior agreement.

As the two sides trade accusations, the risk of further miscalculation and escalation remains ever-present in the strategic waterway.

It wasn’t the first time Chinese forces had disrupted a resupply mission to a grounded World War II-era warship at Second Thomas Shoal that acts as a Philippine outpost in the South China Sea, previously resorting to ramming and water cannon attacks to block and impede operations.

But this latest incident marked a significant escalation, with the Philippine troops under strict orders not to open fire or fight back even in the face of brazen aggression.

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The dilapidated but still active Philippine Navy ship BRP Sierra Madre is seen grounded on Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. Photo: AP

China “would like to push us to fire the first shot”, Philippine Navy spokesman Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad told local media on June 20, three days after the incident.

Beijing maintains that a secret agreement was made with a senior Philippine navy officer regarding resupply missions to the ship, the BRP Sierra Madre. But both President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr and the navy officer involved have separately denied that any such agreement ever existed.

Meanwhile, Chinese ships have been sailing into and through the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, including a 12,000-tonne vessel dubbed ‘The Monster’, the world’s largest coastguard ship. On June 25, Philippine armed forces spokesman Colonel Francel Margareth Padilla told the Inquirer newspaper that these Chinese ship movements are “part of a broader pattern of intrusive patrols aimed at asserting unlawful claims” within the Southeast Asian nation’s EEZ.

“It’s clear, China wants to grab our island territories and maritime zones,” retired Supreme Court associate justice and maritime rights crusader Antonio Carpio told This Week in Asia, calling the June 17 incident a significant escalation.

“This is a higher level, it’s the first time they’ve boarded our auxiliary ships,” he said.

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Rodrigo Duterte (centre) looks on at his inauguration ceremony in 2016 as outgoing president Benigno Aquino (right) reviews the troops. Photo: AP

Faced with the loss of maritime territory and untold resources within its EEZ, the Philippines has tried various approaches over the years, from legal action to appeasement, military modernisation, and seeking alliances.

In 2013, the administration of President Benigno Aquino filed a UN arbitration case challenging China’s nine-dash line claims. The Philippines won the case in 2016, but Beijing rejected the tribunal’s ruling.

When Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016, he took a friendlier approach. He flew to Beijing, announced a pivot away from the Philippines’ US alliance, and set aside the tribunal decision. Duterte also permitted China to build a “friendship bridge” in Manila and the Chinese ambassador even released a song celebrating the two countries’ ties.

However, the expected Chinese investments did not materialise, and China continued to assert its territorial claims and encroach on the Philippine EEZ, despite the warming relations under Duterte. “We were really just giving away our island territories and maritime zones to China” at that time, Carpio said.

When Marcos took office in 2022, some thought he would be Beijing’s “Manchurian candidate”, but instead he drew The Philippines closer to the US and supported military modernisation.

Now, he faces the challenge of an increasingly assertive Beijing, while also fending off accusations that he is turning his country into a puppet of the United States that could be dragged into a war over Taiwan.

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President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr arrives at the Philippines’ South China Sea forces headquarters in Palawan province on June 23. Photo: Presidential Communications Office / Handout via AFP

A weak link in the chain

The South China Sea has long been a point of contention between the Philippines and China, with two disputed features in particular serving as flashpoints: the Second Thomas Shoal and Scarborough Shoal. Both are claimed by Manila and Beijing, with the dilapidated Philippine warship BRP Sierra Madre functioning as a military outpost in the former, while the latter is a traditional fishing ground for Filipino fishermen.

Analysts argue that China is exerting particular pressure on the Philippines for a few key reasons.

First, the Philippines’ geographic location is strategically significant, because it, Japan and Taiwan comprise what is known in US foreign policy circles as the “first island chain”, preventing easy access from the Asian mainland to the open Pacific.

China sees the Philippines as a weak link in this chain. Its strategy of “kill the chicken to scare the monkey”, outlined by foreign affairs magazine The Diplomat a decade ago, dictates that it will “go after lesser powers to diminish the role or prevent the involvement of a greater power”.

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A runway in Lal-lo, Cagayan province, one of the EDCA sites in the northern Philippines. Photo: EPA-EFE

Manila’s policy of building up its military and strengthening its alliances with extra-regional powers also makes it a target. Under Marcos, the Philippines has granted American forces access to four additional military facilities called EDCA sites in the northern Philippines, closer to Taiwan, as well as one facing the disputed Spratly Islands. As a result, the US now has a presence across nine military camps scattered throughout the country.

China will use “any means” to achieve its “ultimate objective” of “stopping the EDCA bases from attaining fully operational status”, according to Trillanes, who also helped author a 2012 law to modernise the Philippine military.

All of which leaves the Philippine leadership in something of a quandary.

China is the Philippines’ largest source of imports and trade relations have remained unaffected, so far. But diplomacy between the two has hit a stone wall.

“Every time we sit down with China, it will say there’s nothing to discuss because it has owned the South China Sea since 2,000 years ago,” Carpio said.

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Filipino protesters hold a rally in Makati City on June 14 criticising Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. Public opinion appears to be hardening against China. Photo: EPA-EFE

The June 17 incident was “a continuation of China’s plan to control the South China Sea”, he said. “That started in 1947 … slowly, as they increased their naval might, they’ve continued to grab and grab.”

What really “aggrieved” Beijing was the four new EDCA sites, according to Filipino businessman and writer Wilson Lee Flores, who supported closer relations with China under Duterte.

“I think that’s when things went wrong,” he said. “Before then, things were normal, right?”

Philippine public opinion appears to be hardening in tandem with China’s increased assertiveness. Almost three in every four Filipinos now favour the use of military force to uphold the nation’s sovereignty and maritime rights, a March survey by Octa Research found.

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Chinese coastguard personnel are seen armed with knives and other sharp objects at Second Thomas Shoal on June 17. Philippine officials initially characterised the clash as a probable “misunderstanding”. Photo: Armed Forces of the Philippines/Handout via AP

But the government isn’t so trigger-happy. Four days after the June 17 clash, the highest ranking official in Marcos’ office, Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, characterised the incident as a probable “misunderstanding or accident”, which would not trigger a seven decade-old defence treaty that binds the US to come to Manila’s aid in the event of an attack.

A day later, Marcos himself declared “we are not in the business to instigate wars” while visiting troops at the Philippines’ South China Sea forces headquarters in Palawan province. “Our great ambition is to provide a peaceful and prosperous life for every Filipino,” he said.

For Manila’s defence chief, June 17 was “a deliberate act of the Chinese officialdom”, which he said on Monday was orchestrated “to prevent us from completing our mission”. Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro’s fighting talk was belatedly matched by Marcos, who said on Thursday that he and his officials “have to do more” than just protest against China’s “deliberate and illegal action” – without elaborating.

On social media, Filipinos were quick to decry the government’s apparent inaction. The Philippine public “expects you to retaliate”, an account calling itself “West Philippine Sea” posted on X on June 23.

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A screengrab of a post on X demanding Manila takes action against China for its aggression in the South China Sea. Photo: X/MalayaIrredenta

“We understand that the Military Option may not yet be advisable … [but] do something! Expel a few diplomats … file criminal and civil cases … anything other than NOTHING!”

Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, joined calls for the Chinese ambassador and embassy staff to be expelled.

“We need to send them back,” he said in an interview on GMA Network’s 24 Oras news show.

Filipino paranoia

Footage of the June 17 incident further unsettled a Philippine public already uneasy about the proliferation of Chinese-controlled offshore gambling companies known as Pogos. Under the Duterte administration, this lightly regulated sector was promoted as a source of economic growth, but instead brought a surge in criminality, corruption, and an influx of undocumented mainland Chinese, some of whom were wanted criminals.

Further feeding Filipino paranoia about the Pogo industry was the case of Alice Guo, mayor of Bamban town in Tarlac province. Guo was found to have intimate ties to a massive Pogo operation located a stone’s throw from her own office.

She struggled to provide basic details about her background during Senate hearings into her case, was unable to produce any records of her birth or schooling, and offered conflicting accounts of her family and upbringing. Senator Win Gatchalian presented documents purportedly proving that Guo is actually a Chinese citizen named Guo Hua Ping. Amid the damning revelations, the Office of the Ombudsman ordered Guo’s suspension from office.

Meanwhile, a recent raid on an illegal Pogo complex in Pampanga province uncovered another disturbing find: Chinese military uniforms. The discovery only heightened suspicions that the industry is being exploited by Beijing, both to embed agents within the Philippines and conduct electronic espionage targeting military installations.

Both China and the Philippines are playing into the hands of provocateurs and hawks who want nothing more than to see our two countries at loggerheads
Teresita Ang-See, Kaisa founder

But Kaisa founder Ang-See called this a “ridiculous misconception”.

“The evils brought about by Pogos – gambling-related kidnappings, human-trafficking related kidnappings – and the maritime dispute over the West Philippine Sea have all been lumped into one catch-all bogeyman,” she said.

“Both China and the Philippines are playing into the hands of provocateurs and hawks who want nothing more than to see our two countries at loggerheads.”

China’s actions on June 17 were “indefensible”, Ang-see said, but Philippine “public pronouncements should be more discriminating to avoid pouring oil onto the fire”.

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American and Filipino prisoners of war captured by Japanese forces are seen in the Philippines during World War II. A historian drew unsettling parallels between the paranoia surrounding the Pogo industry and WWII. Photo: AP

University of the Philippines history professor emeritus Ricardo Jose drew unsettling parallels between the paranoia surrounding the Pogo industry and the lead-up to World War II in the Philippines.

“The stories of Chinese infiltrators remind me of what happened back then,” Jose said. “The Japanese sent some officers here as spies before the war disguised as salesmen … Some local Japanese were hired as intelligence sources too.”

It’s a concerning echo of the past – in 1941, China and the US, which governed the Philippines as a commonwealth, were allies against Japan. Now, the tables have turned, with the Philippines, the US, and Japan standing as allies, while the perceived threat emanates from China.

“If we have the world on our side, China cannot do what it wants,” Carpio told This Week in Asia. “That’s why we need to get the rest of the world to support us here, and I think they will … China in the long run is in a no-win situation.”

  

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