Derek Grossman of the War on The Rocks reports China is likely to roll out new and creative gray-zone tactics to get the point across that it maintains sovereignty over Second Thomas Shoal. If this happens, then it will only reconfirm the fact that deterrence through the strengthening U.S.-Philippine alliance is actually working. He writes:
For the last several months, the Chinese government has steadily ramped up its coercive gray-zone tactics in order to interfere with Philippine civilian resupply missions of troops aboard the BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. In 1999, Manila intentionally ran the World War II-era ship aground on this disputed shoal, establishing a permanent military presence, to demonstrate Philippine sovereignty there. Since then, Philippine resupply missions have consistently faced Chinese harassment.
This year, such activities, which are non-kinetic and meant to achieve national objectives without warfare, have clearly intensified. Beijing has shone a military-grade laser to blind the Philippine coast guard, fired a water cannon at Philippine vessels, conducted dangerous maneuvers near coast guard vessels, and most recently, on Oct. 22, intentionally rammed resupply and escorting Philippine ships.
In response to the latest and most serious incident, the Philippine government summoned the Chinese ambassador to express its deep concerns and filed its 55th diplomatic protest of the year. But, fortunately for Manila, it is not alone. The longstanding U.S.-Philippine security alliance gives Manila the confidence needed to stand up to China. In particular, Article V of the Mutual Defense Treaty states:
… an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft [emphasis added] in the Pacific. […]
Regardless, in the coming weeks and months, China is likely to roll out new and creative gray-zone tactics to get the point across that it maintains sovereignty over Second Thomas Shoal. If this happens, then it will only reconfirm the fact that deterrence through the strengthening U.S.-Philippine alliance is actually working. Put a different way, because deterrence is holding, Beijing must reach into its toolkit to find additional coercive gray-zone tactics to stop future resupply missions, short of an armed attack. Rather than view such moves with frustration, Manila and Washington should consider them a victory.
Nonetheless, China’s gray-zone activities could inadvertently result in triggering the Mutual Defense Treaty through an accident at sea that leads to miscalculation, escalation, and armed conflict. This is the scenario that understandably keeps American and Philippine policymakers and strategic planners up at night. As my colleague Blake Herzinger recently argued in these pages, one way of mitigating the potential risk is to remove the Sierra Madre and replace it with a combined forward operating base that includes Philippine forces and U.S. Marine Corps. This could significantly bolster deterrence because the U.S. Navy is much better at repelling Chinese gray-zone activities, according to Herzinger. Doing so, however, could also invite reprisals and put U.S. military personnel and assets unnecessarily and directly in harm’s way.
Alternatively, the United States could unequivocally state that Second Thomas Shoal — and, for that matter, other disputed South China Sea features including Scarborough Shoal and Pag-asa — are covered by the Mutual Defense Treaty if attacked. Washington has done this before. For example, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in 2012 announced that the Obama administration would defend Japan’s Senkaku Islands (China’s Diaoyu) from Chinese aggression, explicitly stating they were covered under Article V of the U.S.-Japanese Mutual Defense Treaty. The problem, however, is that Chinese interference in the East China Sea has continued unabated, with another coast guard standoff happening there just this past week.
Perhaps the best solution is what has already been happening: The United States should continue to offer military assistance and training to the Philippines so that Manila can increasingly counter China on its own while Washington continues to remind and warn Beijing that Article V must not be violated. This is the least risky option that also holds the greatest chance of success.
Read more here.