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Alarm bells ring as Philippines backs down in South China Sea over concerns US doesn’t have its back

Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr inspecting Filipino troops in Manila (Source: Presidential Communications Office)

Increasing antagonism in the waters of the South China Sea has brought the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China to blows over contested makeshift islands and atolls, raising alarm bells for Manila about US commitment to the region’s security.

Increasing antagonism in the waters of the South China Sea has brought the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China to blows over contested makeshift islands and atolls, raising alarm bells for Manila about US commitment to the region’s security.

For many Southeast Asian nations, their gateway to the world and economic development is the South China Sea, a strategically located waterway responsible for more than 60 per cent of global maritime trade and a third of global shipping.

It is also the sight of many of the world’s most ancient and contested rivalries, as nations of all sizes surrounding the waterway seek to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the South China Sea, bringing them into direct competition with one another.


At the forefront of the competition in the area is the People’s Republic of China, drawing on ancient claims to assert the legitimacy of their claim to the strategic waterway and its resource reserves outlined by their arbitrarily designed “Nine Dash Line”, in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the sovereign waters of a number of nations.

Beijing’s claims, extending to over 80 per cent over the South China Sea, have brought it into direct hostility and competition with neighbouring nations from Indonesia and Singapore to Vietnam and, of course, the Philippines.

In recent weeks, Beijing has stepped up its efforts to coerce and intimidate the Philippines, resulting in the injury of a Filipino sailor as the Philippine Navy clashed with the Chinese Coast Guard and elements of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy following forcible boarding and disarming of personnel aboard a Philippine resupply mission en route to the hotly-contested Second Thomas Shoal.

Meanwhile in the background, the United States, responding to requests from regional partners, has been quietly rebuilding its position in the region in an effort to serve as an “offshore” balancing force to maintain the post-Second World War consensus and order, often to the anger of the Chinese who see the region as their exclusive domain and sphere of influence.

However, concerns are mounting among some US-aligned nations in the region about the level of commitment and capacity from the United States to maintain the regional and global order, foremost among these is the Philippines, which is now seeking to take a more “considered” approach to its regional engagement.

Ambiguous nature of harassment causing strategic anxiety

While the Philippines has remained stalwart in resisting Beijing’s aggression in the region, it appears that the nation’s resistance may have its limitations, particularly amid growing concerns in Manila that the United States may not have the capacity to back it up should the situation become more violent.

Now yes, while Manila has a Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) originally signed in 1951 with the United States it hasn’t stopped Filipino President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr’s administration from raising serious concerns about the United States’ resolve and capacity.

Highlighting this, President Marcos has sought to emphasise a degree of neutrality in the great power competition amid these concerns, telling Filipino troops, “We are not in the business to instigate wars – our great ambition is to provide a peaceful and prosperous life for every Filipino. This is the drum beat, this is the principle that we live by and that we march by.”

Going further, Marcos added, “We refuse to play by the rules that force us to choose sides in a great power competition. No government that truly exists in the service of the people will invite danger or harm to lives and livelihood.”

This didn’t stop the Filipino President from reiterating that his nation would seek to push back and “stand firm” against Beijing’s antagonism and aggression in the region, particular in Philippine territorial waters and outlying territories despite the risk of further and escalating conflict with the rising superpower.

But what is the cause of the Philippines’ anxiety over a belief that the US won’t have its back?

Well, this largely comes as a result of the nature of Beijing’s increasing “grey zone” tactics that are kept below the threshold of what would traditionally be considered “conflict” or “acts of war”, meaning they don’t necessarily trigger the aforementioned MDT.

Where the MDT really comes unstuck is in a report from US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) from 2023 which highlights, “The US and the Philippines entered a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) in 1951, which remains in effect today. In article IV of the MDT, each party recognises that in the event of an ‘armed attack’ on either of the parties that it ‘would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.’ Article V goes on to say that an ‘armed attack’ for the purposes of article IV is deemed to include an ‘armed attack’ on ‘armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft’.”

Now it goes without saying that the recent incidents in the proximity to the Philippine outpost in the wreck of the BRP Sierra Madre could subjectively be considered an “armed attack” by the People’s Liberation Army-Navy and a major escalation in Beijing’s ambitions in the region.

Again, referring back to the INDOPACOM report, we see the US state, “The US position on the MDT is clear: as reaffirmed recently by the US Secretary of Defense and the US State Department, ‘an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft, including those of the Coast Guard in the South China Sea, would invoke US mutual defense commitments under article IV.”

Going further to this, “Applied in context of events surrounding Sierra Madre and 2TS, article IV of the MDT may be invoked in the event of an ‘armed attack’ on Sierra Madre, armed forces embarked on Sierra Madre, or Philippine vessels, aircraft, or armed forces operating lawfully in and around 2TS, Sierra Madre, or anywhere in the SCS.”

However, where all of this diplomatic, legal rhetoric comes unstuck is the vague, ill-defined concept of an “armed attack”, something INDOPACOM’s own report detailed, saying, “What constitutes an ‘armed attack’ under the MDT is not defined, but as a matter of international law, the United States has long taken the position that the inherent right of self-defence against an armed attack or imminent armed attack potentially applies against any illegal use of force, or as implemented in US standing rules of engagement, against any hostile act or demonstrated hostile intent. An illegal use of force is not limited by law to a kinetic armed attack (e.g. the use of munitions) but could also include non-kinetic attacks that result in death, injury, damage, or destruction of persons or objects.”

Based on these factors, it is easy to understand the declining confidence of the Marcos administration in the United States and its commitment to the Mutual Defence Treaty and by extension the commitment of the US to actively and assertively move to stabilise the region and warn of overt acts of aggression.

So, where does this leave Australia’s own security relationship with the United States and how we secure our own interests? Are we a unique case or are we in the same boat as the Philippines?

Final thoughts

There is no escaping that the Indo-Pacific is at the epicentre of great and middle power competition that is accelerating at breakneck speed, with nations across the region investing in increasingly capable military forces, particularly their navies requiring Australia to step-up its own game, and quickly.

Importantly, the real work begins right now.

As part of this interrogation, we have to ask, have we got the balance right? Have we got the fleet disposition right? Or are there better alternatives for us to consider to maximise the efficacy and lethality of the Navy and broader Australian Defence Force as part of delivering “Impactful Projection” as articulated by the Deputy Prime Minister?

Ultimately, this comes back to the government’s shift away from a “Balanced Force” towards a “Focused Force” as championed in the Defence Strategic Review and the foundational problem that is our lack of clearly defined role and objectives for our own Defence capabilities.

In the maritime domain, this is of paramount importance as identified by David Uren, writing for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, that “two-thirds of Australia’s exports by value and a little over 40 per cent of its imports by value travelling through the Indonesian archipelago. About 6 per cent of exports go east across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand, the Pacific islands and North or South America, while about 13 per cent of imports come from the east”.

Uren added, “Only about 4 per cent of Australia’s maritime trade travels west across the Indian Ocean without going through Indonesian waters, bound for India, the Middle East or the Suez Canal. Of the Australian exports that enter Indonesian waters, about 73 per cent are headed for North Asia (principally iron ore and LNG), while 17 per cent have destinations in Southeast Asia, and 10 per cent are en route for India, the Middle East or Europe. Among the imports coming through the Indonesian straits, about 11 per cent come from North Asia, and a little over 40 per cent from each of Southeast Asia and Europe.”

Importantly, no one has said that defending the nation in this era of renewed and increasingly capable great power competition will be cheap or easy and we have to accept that uncomfortable reality, because the alternative outcome is infinitely worse.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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