The conflict in Asia over who controls the South China Sea is primarily driven by the fact that China has claimed it all for itself and has the strongest military presence in the region. The Philippines is pushing back, with America's support, and there are indicators that other nations will join the conflict including Japan which recently approved its largest military budget ever.
Escalating tensions with China in the South China Sea is causing the Philippines to gear up for "more robust" military activities with its American ally, according to Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. This strategic shift aligns with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.'s vision of building closer ties with "other allies and like-minded countries" against the backdrop of China's "domination" agenda in the region.
Defense Secretary Teodoro discussed the matter at a September 2023 Senate hearing in Manila:
"The Philippines continues to face the persistent challenge of China's expansive claims in the South China Sea, which encroach upon our sovereign territory and maritime zones. These claims directly impact our livelihood, our security, and our right to freely navigate and exploit the resources within our exclusive economic zone. While we strive for peaceful resolution through diplomatic and legal channels, China's recent actions, including the blocking of our resupply mission in Ayungin Shoal, demonstrate a disregard for international law and norms. Such aggressive behavior underscores the urgent need for a coordinated regional response and the continued presence of our allies, like the United States, to ensure freedom of navigation and deter further escalation.
Our partnership with the US remains a cornerstone of our national defense strategy. Joint exercises and patrols not only enhance our own capabilities but also send a clear message of solidarity and resolve to those who would challenge the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. We welcome the recent strengthening of this alliance, including expanded US access to military bases, as it allows us to better respond to emerging threats and safeguard our national interests."
China is increasingly assertive in the region and in particular in the South China Sea. The Philippines has been the chief mobilizer of a response in the region as it defends its territory, some of which has unilaterally been claimed by China as its own. Beijing's expansive claims encompassing nearly 90% of the South China Sea directly clash with the territorial rights of multiple Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines. This resource-rich waterway, carrying about one-third of global maritime trade, is not just a strategic chokepoint but also a vital lifeline for the global economy. Other regional players, like Vietnam and Malaysia, have expressed concern but not as forcefully as Marcos.
A miscalculation or conflict could have disastrous consequences for regional security and the global trade network. Moreover, the South China Sea's proximity to Taiwan, another contentious flashpoint, adds another layer of complexity to the geopolitical landscape. The Philippines is leveraging its longstanding alliance with the Americans to attend to the conflict. Japan is likely to be a factor in patrolling the South China Sea in the future and it has recently approved its largest military budget ever approaching $56 billion.