South China Sea: US-China rivalry leaves Whitsun Reef and the Philippines in deep and dangerous waters


Far more important than who is right in the contretemps between China and the Philippines over Chinese boats massing at Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea, is what the contest reveals about the political forces at work. What should have been a storm in a teacup has became dangerous because of the US-China struggle for dominance in the region.

The United States is trying to contain China politically and militarily, and seeks allies to do so. China views this as “encirclement”. The Philippines figures prominently in the US strategy as an ally on the front line of soft power.

Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines tilted towards China, but the latest flap has helped the Philippine opposition push Duterte’s administration towards a more aggressive China stance. This is much to the advantage of US interests and may even help the pro-US Philippine opposition win the presidency next year.

If that happens, said Greg Poling of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the “No 1 goal of the alliance should be to get [the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement] moving, so US and Philippine forces can operate jointly from Philippine bases” against China.