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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 19, 2024

Not-so uncharted waters: The frontline battle for the South China Sea

The Philippines is fighting back as China moves to control Philippine territory in the South China Sea.


The South China Sea is pictured.

In 1942, General Douglas McArthur uttered the famous quote, “I shall return.” With that line, he left the Philippines. Following the U.S. retreat, the Philippines continued to resist the Japanese during the first half of World War II. This came at the cost of one of the least discussed, yet bloodiest prisoner-of-war events in history: the Bataan Death March. An estimated 20,000 Filipinos were killed in a brutal forced march of about 62 miles. The U.S. government waited almost two years to criticize the Bataan Death March, quickly referencing it in rousing propaganda. The repercussions of this decision are still felt today. Unless they are particularly interested in Filipino history, talking about the March to my peers often results in blank stares.

Now, 81 years later, the Filipino people once again face an invasion by a global superpower: China. The relationship between the U.S. and China is quickly becoming the defining crisis of our time. Yet when addressing this conflict, as has happened in the past, the repercussions on smaller countries like the Philippines are often left out of the discussion.

Prior to and during the events of Pearl Harbor, Japan moved rapidly to seize territory throughout the South Pacific. I see a similar trend happening today with the Chinese encroachment on Philippine territory. The Philippines, though assured by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken that the U.S. would come to their defense in case of an attack in the South China Sea, has essentially been abandoned by the U.S., save for a few patrols. The country must once again fend for itself against an overwhelming global power. Despite the odds stacked against them, the Philippines has recently begun to fight back.

Just recently, the tenacious spirit of the Philippines was on full display, as a video from the Philippine Coast Guard showed a lone diver courageously cutting a rope placed by the Chinese that was being used to hold down a 980-foot barrier that blocked off legal Philippine territory. Following the act of resistance, the Chinese removed the obstruction. This event is just one isolated incident out of many tense confrontations between the Chinese and Filipinos.

On Tuesday, the Chinese government claimed to have turned away a Philippine navy ship that was on its way to the Philippines’ internationally-recognized exclusive economic zone. According to Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., the Philippines’ military chief of staff, the incident was likely Chinese propaganda; however, it represents the increased narrative of control that China is broadcasting in regards to the region. What China isn’t saying is that the country is on the brink of causing an international disaster — last week, a Chinese coast guard ship came within three feet of a Philippine patrol ship.

China’s greed for the South China Sea — they claim 90% of it, though their presence in many areas is in direct opposition to international law — is impacting the livelihoods of Filipino fishermen by blocking off shoals that have traditionally been fishing spots for Filipino locals. Beyond this, it also indicates a dangerous future where China seeks to control the $3.37 trillion of goods that transit the South China Sea each year.

From an international relations standpoint, the actions taken by the Philippines thus far have shown promising results. As demonstrated by the non-existent repercussions following the Coast Guard incident, China is willing to back down. By taking action against the Chinese and avoiding falling into the deadly trap of appeasement, the Philippines proved that it would not cede its territory without a fight. As Mark Twain once said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Should the Chinese continue to move illegally into the South China Sea, they will discover the tenacious spirit of the Filipino people that has echoed throughout history.