Philippines-China Competition in the South China Sea

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The South China Sea has been a source of many problems for a long time, particularly due to the richness of natural resources and reserves in the region, leading to unresolved exclusive economic zone disputes between China and other coastal states. The Philippines is one of the countries experiencing these issues, and this situation has forced them to seek closer ties with the Washington administration by abandoning their policy of not hosting the military presence of the United States.

As is well known, China has significant investments both in the Asia-Pacific region and in other parts of the world. These investments have increased China’s influence in these regions and drawn the attention of the United States towards China. As a result, the disputes in the South China Sea are also attracting the attention of the US.

The South China Sea has significant potential with rich living and non-living natural resources. This large potential has led to China, which has rapidly increasing food demand, to play a more active role in the region. In 2019, China played a significant role by providing 60% of the world’s seafood production to meet this demand.[1]

According to data released by the Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2022, China’s food demand and hence its demand for seafood will significantly increase in the future. By 2035, it is expected that China’s total demand for seafood will increase from 81 million tons to 100 million tons.[2] Therefore, the South China Sea has become an indispensable area for the Beijing government. The region is home to more than 3790 fish species[3], and therefore has great fishing potential. For instance, between 1950 and 2014, the region produced 504.6 million tons of fish.[4]

The South China Sea is not only important in terms of seafood production, but also in terms of its oil and natural gas resources. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the South China Sea has reserves of 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil.[5]  Furthermore, the US Geological Survey has highlighted in 2012 that there could be as much as 160 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas in the region.[6]

It can be said that China is important not only for its own sake but also for other coastal states due to its rich resources. However, conflicts between the Philippines and China in the region are increasing. Both countries claim rights in many disputed areas, including the Spratly Islands, which is the reason for this situation.

Due to the territorial claims and disputes with China, the Manila government is attempting to balance China by cultivating close relationships with the US. In this context, in February 2023, the US and the Philippines agreed to fully implement and expedite the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, and to establish four new bases in addition to the five existing US bases.[7] Furthermore, the US administration has announced that it will provide extensive support to the Philippines, which includes a range of issues from job creation to combating climate change.

The issues between the Philippines and China continue to persist, as evidenced by recent events. For instance, on April 28, 2023, the Philippines claimed that two Chinese coast guard vessels harassed and made dangerous maneuvers towards a Philippine ship.[8] The Philippines also reported similar incidents occurring in the same area on April 19, 2023, and near Pagasa Island on April 21, 2023.[9]

The statements made by the Chinese government indicate that Chinese coast guard forces took measured and professional measures to protect the country’s territorial integrity. Additionally, the Chinese government has protested to the Philippines,[10] emphasizing the need to respect the Philippines’ borders in the South China Sea. Similarly, on April 22, 2023, the Chinese Foreign Minister expressed their readiness to cooperate with the Philippines in resolving the issues.[11]

In its official statement on April 29, 2023, the US stated that it had been regularly harassed during patrols within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. Additionally, it emphasized that the area where the incidents took place was clearly within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and that the Washington administration openly supports Manila.[12] Therefore, it can be interpreted that the US intends to use the disputes between the Philippines and China to expand its presence in the region.

The South China Sea is a region where many countries have disputes over their exclusive economic zone boundaries due to its marine resources and underground reserves. The Philippines is one of these countries and is of great importance to the US due to its desire to acquire allies against China and its strategic location. Therefore, in the tensions of April 2023, the US continued to openly support the Philippines both to strengthen its position in competition with China and to consolidate its position in the region. As a result, it can be predicted that by increasing its interest in the disputes in the South China Sea, the US will increase its power against China.

[1] Yu Sheng, “Can Aquaculture Meet China’s Demand for Food?”, East Asia Forum,, (Date of Accession: 20.04.2023).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Daniel Pauly-Cui Liang, The Fisheries of the South China Sea: Major Trends Since 1950, Marine Policy, 2020, p. 1.

[4] Kevin Varley vd, “Fight over Fish Fans a New Stage of Conflict in South China Sea”, Bloomberg,, (Date of Accession: 29.04.2023).

[5] “South China Sea Energy Exploration and Development”, Asia Maritime Transparency Agency,, (Date of Accession: 29.04.2023).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sanya Mansoor-Simmone Shah, “Why the Philippines Is Letting the U.S. Expand Its Military Footprint in the Country Again”, Time,, (Date of Accession: 03.02.2023).

[8] “Philippines Reports ‘Confrontation’ with China in South China Sea”, Aljazeera,, (Date of Accession: 28.04.2023).

[9] “China, Philippine Vessels Nearly Collided in Latest Dispute in South China Sea”, Alarabiya News,, (Date of Accession: 30.04.2023).

[10] “China Expresses Strong Protest over Philippine Vessels’ Intrusion, Says Chinese Coast Guard’s Response ‘Professional’, ‘Restrained’”, Global Times,, (Date of Accession: 28.04.2023).

[11] “China Ready to Resolve Differences with Philippines, Diplomat Says”, Voice of America,, (Date of Accession: 22.04.2023).

[12] “U.S. Support for the Philippines in the South China Sea”, U.S Department of State,, (Date of Accession: 29.04.2023).

Elcan TOKMAK, 2022 yılında Gazi Üniversitesi İktisadi İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü'nden mezun olmuştur. Eylül-Aralık 2022 tarihleri arasında ANKASAM bünyesinde Kariyer Staj Programı'nı tamamlayan Tokmak, Temmuz 2023 tarihinden itibaren ANKASAM Asya-Pasifik Araştırma Asistanı olarak çalışmalarını sürdürmektedir. Şu anda Hacettepe Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü'nde Yüksek Lisans eğitimine devam eden Tokmak'ın ilgi alanları Çin-Japonya-Kore ilişkileri ve Çin Dış Politikası'dır. Tokmak; profesyonel düzeyde İngilizce, orta derecede Çince ve başlangıç düzeyinde Korece bilmektedir.