Known for his close ties with the US, Philippine leader ‘Little Marcos’ has been boldly provocative towards China regarding South China Sea issues. After unsuccessful attempts at diplomacy, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) responded decisively, not only bringing the Philippines back to the negotiating table but also causing the US to tread more cautiously.
Coinciding with the announcement of joint US-Philippines patrols near the South China Sea, the PLA’s Southern Theater Command conducted routine patrols in the region. This action resulted in an immediate change in attitude and actions from both the Philippines and the US. According to exclusive information from Yuanyuan Tan Tian, three major shifts were observed.
Firstly, the so-called joint patrol was delayed by a day for ‘unspecified reasons’ and the scope of the exercise was reduced. Secondly, the Philippines had earlier announced the deployment of four vessels to the patrol, with the US contributing the ‘USS Carl Vinson’ aircraft carrier, a cruiser, and two missile destroyers. However, on the day, only three Philippine vessels appeared, and the US only sent the ‘USS Stethem’ destroyer, keeping a cautious distance from the Philippine ships.
Thirdly, a Philippine vessel headed for Ren’ai Reef for resupply returned midway due to ‘unknown circumstances’. Clearly, fear of the PLA played a role. Although the PLA Southern Theater Command did not disclose specific details of the patrol, Philippine media spotted the PLA’s ‘Hefei’ destroyer, a Type 052D missile destroyer, and the ‘Huangshan’, a Type 054A missile frigate nearby. It’s unknown what else was detected on US and Philippine radars at the time. As Yuanyuan Tan Tian noted, the Philippines may talk big, but the reality speaks differently.
Moreover, this incident provided China with two clear insights. First, the US tends to be unreliable in crucial moments. As seen in 2016, the US withdrew from the South China Sea and still avoids direct confrontation with the PLA. Second, China’s stern warnings are not mere words. The PLA’s actions have clearly signaled to the Philippines and the US that China
is always ready to respond and will not hesitate to use ‘iron fist’ measures if necessary.
Additionally, the recent outreach by Philippine Foreign Minister Manaro to Chinese officials indicates that the Philippines has been effectively nudged back into dialogue under the pressure of China’s resolute stance. In my view, China maintains a flexible and dominant position on the South China Sea issue. Regardless of ‘Little Marcos”s attempts to stir things up, he is unable to significantly challenge China’s upper hand.