China-Philippines dispute could escalate into superpower conflict, say analysts

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A territorial dispute between China and the US-aligned Philippines is at increasingly high risk of escalating into a conflict involving the two superpowers, analysts have said, after Chinese coastguards used a water cannon on a Philippine boat.

Global concern about China’s naval activities is growing as the country expands and modernises its military, and shows increasing aggression in its claims over the South China Sea and Taiwan. Joint drills with Russia – during which a flotilla sailed near Alaska this weekend – have also heightened concern over military coordination between Beijing and Moscow.

On Saturday, China’s coastguard directed water cannon at a Philippine coastguard resupply vessels en route to the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands, which Beijing also claims. Philippine military personnel are living onboard a grounded former warship, the Sierra Madre, deliberately scuttled at the Shoal in 1999 to reinforce Manila’s claims. China’s coastguard also used water cannon against a Philippine supply crew in November 2021.

The Philippine coastguard has accused the Chinese crew of illegal conduct and dangerous manoeuvres, and its government has summoned the Chinese ambassador to lodge a diplomatic protest. Its foreign ministry said it was unable to reach Beijing counterparts during the incident.

The US, EU, France, Japan and Australia were among nations to voice support for the Philippines and concern over China’s actions. Washington also reaffirmed its commitment to obligations under a mutual defence treaty, to defend the Philippines if its public vessels and forces come under armed attack.

Blake Herzinger, a research fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, said there was “significant escalatory potential” in the Philippine holdings of the South China Sea. “Beijing’s risky behaviour in the region has the potential to draw the two powers into conflict even without intending to do so,” Herzinger said.

What activity would trigger the treaty, and how close the weekend’s incident came, remains unclear, said Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy in east Asia at King’s College London. Both sides have released footage of the confrontation. The Philippine coastguard spokesperson, Jay Taryela, also released photos purporting to show boats from China’s maritime militia assisting the interception of the Philippines supply mission.

But Patalano said the US was sending Beijing a message that it considered activity in disputed areas such as the Shoal as covered by the treaty.

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