Philippines Reports Fresh Clash With China as U.S. Reaffirms Defense Pledge

Forces from the Philippines and China were involved in a fresh spat near a disputed island in the South China Sea on Sunday, before Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Manila to renew defense commitments to the U.S.'s oldest ally in Asia.

The crew of a Chinese coast guard vessel was accused of seizing by force a piece of unidentified floating debris near Philippine-held Thitu, one of the contested Spratly Islands, after members of the Philippine Navy had reached it first on Sunday, according to a statement by Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos of the Philippines.

Philippine military personnel spotted the floating object drifting roughly half a mile off Thitu, which Manila calls Pagasa and Beijing calls Zhongye. Sailors were dispatched in an inflatable boat and began towing it back to the island, said Carlos, who heads the western command of the country's armed forces.

A Chinese coast guard vessel numbered 5203 approached the boat and "subsequently blocked its pre-plotted course twice," the navy official said on Monday. The Chinese ship then deployed its own personnel in an inflatable boat and "forcefully retrieved said floating object by cutting the towing line."

No injuries were reported during the standoff, according to Carlos.

Philippines Reports Fresh South China Sea Clash
Buildings and structures seen on the artificial island built by China in Cuarteron Reef on October 25, 2022, in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. China has progressively asserted its claim of ownership over the disputed islands. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Major Cherryl Tindog, a spokesperson for the Philippines military's western command, said the floating metal object appeared to be similar to a number of other pieces of Chinese rocket debris recently found in Philippine waters.

Philippine sailors didn't further challenge the Chinese action, said Tindog.

"We practise maximum tolerance in such a situation," Tindog said. "Since it involved an unidentified object and not a matter of life and death, our team just decided to return."

In a tweet, Ho Chi Minh City-based maritime analyst Duan Dang said public ship-tracking data showed the Chinese coast guard vessel 5203 and many "Chinese maritime militia vessels" operating near Thitu on the day of the incident.

China claims all of the islands, reefs and shoal in the South China Sea as part of its historic "nine-dash line," which the Permanent Court of Arbitration dismissed as invalid in a 2016 verdict in Philippines v. China. The United States is among the governments that back Manila in the ruling, while Beijing rejects the outcome in its entirety.

Manila and Beijing have been involved in a number of low-grade clashes since the Chinese navy wrested control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, the incident that sparked the landmark court case in The Hague.

Recent encounters have involved Chinese coast guard attempts to block the resupply of a small contingent of Philippine marines stationed at Manila-controlled Second Thomas Shoal.

Ultimately, however, the Philippine government has been unable to enforce the 2016 ruling, while hundreds of protests with the Chinese side have yielded few results. Manila's foreign affairs department said it would conduct a review of the latest incident before considering the appropriate next step.

Separately, the Philippine Daily Inquirer said residents of Thitu reported hearing a series of loud blasts, likened to "artillery guns," coming from the Chinese-held Subi Reef nearby, a few hours before Sunday's standoff.

Known as Zamora in the Philippines and Zhubi in China, Subi is among Beijing's three fully militarized islands in the contested waters.

China's foreign ministry didn't respond to requests for comment about the incident.

Philippines Reports Fresh South China Sea Clash
Buildings, recreational facilities and other structures are seen on the artificial island built by China in Subi Reef on October 25, 2022, in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. China has progressively asserted its claim of ownership over disputed islands in the South China Sea by artificially increasing the size of the islands, creating new ones and building ports, military outposts and airstrips. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Shoring Up the Alliance

Vice President Harris became the most senior Biden administration official to visit the Philippines when she landed in Manila late on Sunday, a sign that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.'s government was more openly supportive of his country's alliance with the U.S. than was his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.

Marcos Jr. met with President Xi Jinping of China on the margins of the APEC summit last Friday. On Monday, Marcos Jr. told Harris: "I have said many times, I do not see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States."

Ahead of their bilateral meeting, the vice president reaffirmed guarantees to America's oldest ally in Asia under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which since the Trump administration has explicitly covered attacks against the Philippines in the South China Sea.

"I will say that we must reiterate always that we stand with you in defense of international rules and norms as it relates to the South China Sea," said Harris.

"An armed attack on the Philippines armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke the U.S.'s mutual defense commitments. And that is an unwavering commitment that we have to the Philippines," she said.

Rebuke for Beijing

Sunday's incident off Thitu happened roughly 300 miles from Puerto Princesa, the Palawan provincial capital where Harris will fly to on Tuesday. In an expected speech from the edge of the South China Sea, she's expected to rebuke Beijing for its belligerence against its neighbors.

Harris would touch on principles including "sovereignty, territorial integrity and freedom of navigation," said a senior administration official on Sunday. The vice president would also discuss the effects of climate change and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Harris' trip was expected to raise cooperation in a number of areas including trade and cybersecurity. Washington and Manila have sent positive signals about a potential upgrade to U.S. basing agreements in the Philippines.

American forces currently have access to five locations in the country. Bartolome Bacarro, the chief of staff of the Philippines armed forces, said last week that the U.S. had proposed five more, including one in Palawan.

A White House fact sheet said Harris would be announcing $82 million toward the competition of 21 projects at the existing five bases, "enabling the United States and the Philippines to build lasting security infrastructure to promote long-term modernization, build a credible mutual defense posture, maintain humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities, and enhance the strength of the alliance."