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Conflict Tracker: A glimpse of china’s endeavors vis a vis philippines in the maritime domain (2023)

By Sruthi Sadhasivam

Image courtesy: Times

Article 45/2023

The objective of curating a conflict tracker was to keep track of the scale and direction in which the tensions between China and Philippines have panned out in the South China Sea in the year 2023. Preliminary observations have been drawn from examining the conflict tracker. They are as follows. Please refer to fig 0.1, 0.2, 0.3 & 0.4 before perusing the text. 

In the months of January, April & December 2023 (colour coded in light blue), Philippines’ and China’s attempts at negotiation and diffusing tensions can be witnessed. However, in various time periods of 2023, it can be deduced from the conflict tracker that the tensions are turning violent, with China actively employing its gray zone tactics of using maritime militia. The conflict tracker is indicative of the rising tensions between Philippines and China in the maritime domain. 

As the conflict tracker showcases, the tactics used by China include employing maritime militia vessels at a large scale in disputed territories, sending threats in the form of radio messaging, and harassing and impeding Philippines operations at sea. China’s more dangerous maneuvers involve bumping, flashing laser lights and firing water cannons at the Philippines vessels and installing floating barriers. Apart from these, China asserts its maritime territorial sovereignty by releasing baseless maps and continuously issuing statements (to other parties to conflict) which in most cases are threats or warnings. 

However, what is striking is Philippines' undeterred attitude and indefatigable approach to China’s provocative maneuvers in the disputed islands (refer fig 0.1). The maritime tensions have brought to limelight Philippines’ defense capabilities including its patrolling and surveillance capabilities.  The Philippines has been publicizing China’s endeavours in the South China Sea. For instance, most of the information used in the conflict tracker was taken from twitter handles of Philippines coast guard officers apart from newspapers. This tactic of advertising China’s moves has helped Philippines garner massive support from world leaders while also helping it portray China as an aggressor at the world stage. 

China can be attributed as a “provocator” to some extent. Its endeavours as depicted in the conflict tracker has proved to be a pertinent source of conflict escalation. Although China keeps affirming that it aspires to solve the tensions via consensus and dialogue, it never implements the same in its actions. For instance, on April 22, 2023, foreign ministers of China and the Philippines held talks with each other to diffuse tensions. In their talks, China’s Foreign minister Qin Gang claimed to resolve the issues between both parties via “consultation and dialogue.”  However, on April 23, 2023, the very next day after the talks between the foreign ministers of both the states, a Chinese coast guard ship intercepted Philippines vessels. In fact, even during the time period of the talks, there were instances where Chinese maritime militia vessels would swarm around the Western Philippines Sea (WPS). Also, in most instances, the talks between both the stakeholders have been generally initiated at the Philippines’ request (one such instance is presented in the conflict tracker (refer fig 0.4)).   

More detailed inferences regarding the scale and direction of conflict can be drawn based on the nature of encounters between China and the Philippines in the future.

Click here to download to view the pdf version of the conflict tracker:

china-philippines tensions (1)
Download PDF • 2.97MB

(Sruthi Sadhasivam is a Research Officer, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S). The views expressed does not reflect the views of C3S)

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