China takes a dim view of Manila’s decision to grant the United States access to four military bases. While the two allies have framed the arrangement as bolstering deterrence vis-à-vis China, such a move is unlikely to deter Beijing.
On 3 April, the Philippine government announced that it would grant the United States access to four additional military bases under their bilateral Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). A joint statement released on 11 April by the two countries’ 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue indicated that the U.S. would allocate over US$100 million by the end of the fiscal year 2023 to upgrade infrastructure at the existing five EDCA sites and support the swift operationalisation of the four new sites. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson expressed grave concern and strong disapproval of the development.
From China’s point of view, the Philippines’ EDCA decision, which is aimed at deterring China on Taiwan issues, is an act of provocation. Hu Bo, a Chinese South China Sea expert, characterised the Philippines’ decision to host additional U.S. military forces as a “100 per cent provocation” towards China.
This decision represents a significant departure from President Marcos Jr.’s initial friendly overtures towards China. Subsequently, the Sino-Philippine relationship started to deteriorate rapidly. Upon taking office, Marcos Jr.’s administration promised a “friend to all, enemy to none” foreign policy. During his January 2023 visit to China, he stated that the Philippines-China relationship was in excellent shape and committed to elevate it to new heights. Concerning the Philippines-China maritime disputes, Marcos Jr. emphasised that these issues should be properly addressed through friendly consultations.
Just one month after the Xi-Marcos meeting, however, Marcos Jr. summoned the Chinese ambassador to Manila, expressing “serious concern“ over China’s actions in the South China Sea. Thereafter came his decision to add new EDCA sites directly facing China on the grounds that it is important for “the defence of our territory.”
With the EDCA decision, the Philippines has inserted itself in the heat of the Sino-U.S. strategic competition, effectively facilitating U.S. military projection into the region. Since the U.S. has made it clear that alliances with China’s neighbouring states are critical in deterring China, and even in winning a future war with China, the Marcos Jr. administration’s decision to add additional military sites for the U.S. military is provocative to Beijing.
An upgraded EDCA also adds to the belief among top Chinese leadership that the U.S. is conducting a global campaign of “encirclement and suppression“ against China. The U.S.-Philippines 2+2 ministerial joint statement asserts that both sides should redouble their efforts at modernising alliance cooperation to bolster their deterrence. Several mainstream U.S. media outlets have published opinion articles such as “What the U.S. Can Do to Prepare for a War With China”, offering tactical advice to the U.S. government for potential future conflict with China. John Bolton, former U.S. national security advisor under the Trump Administration, recently argued that the U.S. should “enhance and replicate” Indo-Pacific security efforts like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the Australia-United Kingdom-U.S. (AUKUS) trilateral arrangement to encourage more Asian states to join a new Asian NATO.
China also perceives the upgraded EDCA as a response to a potential U.S.-China military clash across the Taiwan Strait. Whether willingly or not, the Philippines has, in effect, joined the U.S. in making preparations to defend Taiwan. U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly advocated defending Taiwan in the event of Chinese military attacks. Beijing takes these statements seriously. Three of the four new military sites that the Philippines has allowed the U.S. to use are located south of Taiwan. The Chinese ambassador in Manila has said, with some hyperbole, that the new EDCA sites are only “a stone’s throw away from Taiwan”. But Beijing has good reasons to believe that if a crisis erupts in the Taiwan Strait, these Philippine military bases would be used to facilitate U.S. attacks on China and provide crucial logistical support to U.S. troops.
Although Manila contends that the new EDCA sites are defensive in nature and primarily intended for disaster relief, this argument is unlikely to reassure Beijing. Once China believes that the “one-China principle” has been violated by others, its responses are swift and long-lasting. For instance, China downgraded diplomatic relations with Lithuania when the latter permitted the opening of a diplomatic office using the name Taiwan in 2021. At a time when France, a major NATO ally of the U.S., carefully distanced itself from a potential Taiwan Strait conflict, Beijing perceives Manila as moving in the opposite direction to provoke China despite President Macros Jr.’s assertion that new EDCA sites are not intended for launching offensive attacks.
An upgraded EDCA … adds to the belief among top Chinese leadership that the U.S. is conducting a global campaign of “encirclement and suppression“ against China.
Manila’s decision to upgrade the EDCA with the U.S. puts other regional states in an awkward position. Leaders from Malaysia and Singapore recently returned from fruitful visits to Beijing in early April. As most ASEAN countries seek peace and stability in the region and attempt to mediate tensions between China and the U.S., Manila’s action and raises concerns about regional stability.
Despite China’s evident anger with Manila regarding the new EDCA development, the Sino-Philippine relationship can avoid a downward spiral. Firstly, the two sides should maintain active diplomatic engagement to prevent further escalation, particularly to avoid military confrontation in Second Thomas Shoal. Secondly, China wants Manila to reiterate its position on the “one-China policy” to further reassure Beijing through concrete actions. Lastly, China would welcome ASEAN member states stepping in to facilitate intra-ASEAN consultations before its individual member states make security moves that potentially compromise peace and security in the region.
The momentum of the EDCA arrangements means that the Sino-Philippine relationship finds itself at a crossroads once again. The two countries should take immediate action to avoid the deepening of differences and control possible crises in the region.
Ma Bo was a Wang Gungwu Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also Associate Professor at the School of International Studies and the Assistant Director of the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies at Nanjing University, China.