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Tension rises between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be in Manila Monday to meet President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. The visit comes amid heightened tension between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea, which China claims almost entirely as its own. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: One day last week, just after dawn, several Philippine resupply boats tried to reach a small garrison aboard a rusting World War II-era ship on the Second Thomas Shoal, one deliberately grounded there in the late '90s to bolster Manila's claim to the waters inside its exclusive economic zone. But as the resupply vessels approached, a Chinese coast guard vessel cut off one of the Philippine ships, and the two collided.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLLISION)

SULLIVAN: The damage was minor, but the drama wasn't over. Soon after, another Chinese ship sprayed water cannons at another Philippine vessel. Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos was on board.

ALBERTO CARLOS: It was really high-pressure water cannon they used. It shattered the windshields of the ship and caused some injuries to our personnel.

SULLIVAN: Philippine officials called the confrontation the most severe incident between the two countries to date. It's unlikely to be the last. Gregory Poling is director of the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

GREGORY POLING: China's tried to block every single resupply since at least spring of 2022, and they had done it from time to time even before that, going back as far as 2014. What's changed is the number of boats they're putting out there every single time. So it's gone from one or two China coast guard to a dozen coast guard and 30 or 40 of the militia.

SULLIVAN: But Beijing isn't the only one who's upped the ante.

COLLIN KOH: Under the Marcos Jr. administration, for the very first time, the Philippines has adopted what, you know, maritime expert Ray Powell has coined the term assertive transparency.

SULLIVAN: Calling out or naming and shaming China by bringing journalists along on these resupply missions, for example, to document China's aggression, says Collin Koh, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. And there's more.

KOH: We have seen joint sea and air patrols with the U.S. and, of course, with Australia. And according to the existing reports, the Philippines is pursuing such options with other external parties such as France, for example, all aimed at enhancing the Philippines' ability to respond in the South China Sea in the future.

SULLIVAN: It's a stark departure from the Duterte administration's six years of deferring to China in hopes of reaping economic benefits that never really came. China is not happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: At a foreign ministry briefing last week, Beijing suggested Washington is using Manila as a pawn to provoke China in the superpower rivalry between China and the U.S. Aries Arugay, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, sees Manila's role quite differently.

ARIES ARUGAY: It's allowing its military installations for temporary rotational presence of U.S. troops unseen since the Cold War years, but that is not a free lunch. The Philippines is also expecting some form of economic support, particularly because at the moment, the Philippines is highly vulnerable to economic coercion by China.

SULLIVAN: Jay Batongbacal of the Institute for Maritime Affairs at the University of the Philippines agrees.

JAY BATONGBACAL: The Philippines has its own agency and its own interests to watch out for. It can't really depend on the United States for everything, so that's why it is diversifying its security arrangements also, similar to the fears of Australia and Japan about U.S. reliability in the future, in case Trump wins again.

SULLIVAN: And what of the rusting warship on the Second Thomas Shoal? The U.S. is bound by its mutual defense treaty with Manila to come to its aid in the event of a Chinese attack. But Collin Koh reckons neither Beijing nor Washington are looking for a fight. The U.S. is busy, he says, with Ukraine and the Middle East, and China, he says, is busy, too.

KOH: There are many hotspots that involve the Chinese, right? There is the Indian-Chinese border issue. There is, of course, the East China Sea problem with Japan. There is a South China Sea issue, and there's Taiwan.

SULLIVAN: But even so, every Philippine resupply mission to the rusting hulk of the Sierra Madre and China's attempts to thwart them run the risk of going sideways. Gregory Poling.

POLING: Every time you use a high-pressure water cannon or an acoustic device or a laser or a ramming, every one of those is unlikely to cause a fatality. But do it 20 times, and it will.

SULLIVAN: And the longer this situation goes on, he says, the more likely it is that the world wakes up in the morning to a major crisis in the South China Sea that neither side intended. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.