China, the Philippines, and the Islands that are Tipping the World

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By James Mackin and Scott Kelly

China now controls the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, giving it the ability to exert leverage over a quarter of the world’s shipping. This has come to the attention of the United States and the global community as a major issue and point of contention, but the roots of this crisis regionally run far deeper. Anyone concerned with the supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID outbreak should be worried about what may be coming next as China continues to muscle its way to the position of power it feels entitled to. Although the potential economic and diplomatic impacts of China’s new position are troubling, it has far greater implications for the stability of the international regime that has enabled the modern era of unprecedented prosperity, and improvement in the day to day lives of the world’s most impoverished citizens. This is either a wakeup call, or a death toll for the global community that has upheld the security and stability of the free world since 1945. 


The current tension between China and the Philippines can be traced to the territorial disputes associated with the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Both countries claim ownership of this key cluster of islands, which contains rich deposits of valuable natural resources. Additionally, their strategic location allows them to be leveraged to control the three trillion dollars of trade that traverses the South China Sea annually. The natural resources provided by these islands make them universally valuable to any nation that controls them, but their strategic value makes them even more desirable to an aspiring hegemon such as China. If China is able to dominate the South China Sea through control of the Spratly Islands, it will dominate the critical trade routes of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members.

 Over 12% of the world’s catch of fish, estimated to be worth $21.8 billion, is harvested in the South China Sea. Additionally, there are 7.7 billion known barrels of oil proven to exist in the South China Sea, with the potential of up to 213 billion barrels. These vast reservoirs of oil are what brought these islands to the attention of regional powers in the mid-twentieth century. In addition to oil, it is estimated that the South China Sea contains 266 trillion cubic feet worth of natural gas reserves, which is equal to the natural gas reserves of Qatar. The Spratly Islands alone are estimated to contain 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Modern interest in these islands began when Russian seismologists discovered vast oil reserves off the east coast of Vietnam in 1978. In 1956, Thomas Cloma, a Filipino entrepreneur, claimed to discover the Spratlys. In 1978 the islands were then incorporated into the Palawan province of the Philippines. Tensions escalated with China when the Philippines expanded their Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) to include the Spratlys during that same year. This led to a series of events around competition over the Spratlys to include the stationing of troops by both sides, the placing of sovereignty markers, a brief naval clash in 1995 when China seized Mischief Reef, the 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off in which Chinese Naval vessels repelled Filipino Coast Guard from the area, and the continued building of Chinese military bases within Filipino territory despite the 2016 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling in favor of the Philippines territorial claims.

China not only recognizes the strategic and economic value of the Spratly islands, but it also has the military and economic strength to control them. From a practical standpoint, China seeks to become a regional hegemon through the leveraging of key terrain within the South China Sea. In the mid-1980s, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) published its “Near Seas Active Defense” doctrine which called for the establishment of layered defenses in the first island-chain in order to deter adversaries from threatening China from the sea.

From Department of Defense Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006

In the 1990’s, China developed an arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles aimed at key US airbases and ports within the Western Pacific. These missiles were also designed to sink enemy surface vessels (to include aircraft carriers) hundreds of miles off China’s coast. Recently, China has developed extensive anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, and it has expanded its navy to include a fleet of Russian-made submarines, two aircraft carriers, light frigates, and the carrier-based J-15 jet. Since 2013, China has been building artificial islands in the South China sea, particularly in the Spratly and Paracel islands. The construction of these artificial islands in the Spratlys, and the subsequent denial of Filipino commercial activity in this area, infringes on the Philippines EEZ and its territorial waters. The Chinese government has claimed that these islands are economic in nature, but they are practically utilized for supporting military efforts in the enforcement of Chinese national and economic policies.  

To legitimize their control over the Spratlys, China claims that the Spratly islands historically belong to China.  It is estimated that the Spratly islands have been fished by Chinese fisherman since the Jin Dynasty (266-420 A.D.). Additionally, the Spratlys appear in historical Chinese texts as being a part of sovereign Chinese territory.  In reference to the 2014 South China Sea UNCLOS arbitration, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released an official position paper on why it will not accept or participate in the arbitration.  In this paper, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reiterated China’s position of not participating in the case by claiming that the tribunal does not have jurisdiction over the subject matter.


Confronted by the aggression of its militarily powerful neighbor, the Philippines turned towards leveraging international law and multilateralism in order to defend its territories.  In January of 2013, and as a direct response to the 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off, the Philippine government filed a statement of claim against China in the Arbitral Tribunal of UNCLOS. In 2016, the PCA ruling was in favor of 14 of the 15 Philippine’s submissions against China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea; more importantly, it declared that China’s territorial claims in the Spratlys violate international law. The PCA also found that China is guilty of destroying the maritime environment by building artificial islands, guilty of illegally preventing Filipinos from fishing and conducting oil exploration, and that its historical claims over the islands were nullified when it signed the UNCLOS in 1982.

Despite the significance of this ruling, it has been largely ignored by China.  Even the current President of the Philippines, who has adopted a policy of appeasement towards China, referred to the arbitration as a “piece of trash paper.” Before the following ASEAN summit in Laos, he also stated that the ruling “is purely a bilateral issue between the Philippines and China, and not a matter for ASEAN,” echoing both Cambodia and China’s position on the matter. In 2017, the President of the Philippines emphasized to the press that the Philippines cannot stop China from building artificial islands in Scarborough Shoal, and that to go to war with China would mean the loss of all of the Philippines’ military and police.

China also continues to court Filipino government officials with lucrative trade agreements and development projects.  Despite these factors, the UNCLOS PCA ruling gives small maritime nations in the region an opportunity to form a coalition against China’s expansion.  The success of this coalition will hinge on whether or not the parties involved are strong enough to effectively confront China.


 Due to the lack of a recognized authority in interstate relations, there is a high degree of uncertainty concerning the potential actions of neighboring powers.  There is no reliable higher authority for states to call on for assistance when attack is imminent from a foreign aggressor.  Because of this ever-present threat, states will seek relative power over their neighbors in order to ensure their survival.  This power can be generated through military strength, alliances, and economic interdependence. This pursuit of relative power can quickly result in the outbreak of war, but states also have a tendency to balance against aggressive powers in order to maintain peace and security.  Balancing against China by smaller neighboring states and the prevention of war will require significant U.S. involvement to be successful. 

The conflict between the Philippines and China over the Spratly islands is “realpolitik” at work.  Both states have a national interest in the Spratly islands due to the natural resources they provide.  China has an additional national interest in their strategic value as a powerful tool in expanding Chinese control in the South China Sea.  Each country has put forth historical claims of legitimacy over these islands, but these claims are only secondary to each state’s drive to pursue its interests and security.  The Philippines claims that it discovered these islands in 1956, but many nations have harvested fish there for thousands of years.  The Chinese claim that the islands were historically administered by China since the Jin Dynasty, but they forfeited these claims when they signed UNCLOS.  Additionally, China supposedly cut ties with its imperialistic past during its communist revolution.  Despite claims of legitimacy, the adage of Thucydides rings true in that, “holding in view the real sentiments of us both; for you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is in question only between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Despite the Philippines’ agreements with the United States, the United Nations, and ASEAN, China has aggressively seized control of the Spratlys in order to satisfy its national interests.  


Due to their position of military inferiority compared to China, the Philippines has appealed to international law in defending its territorial waters in the Spratlys by turning to International Organizations (IO) for a resolution in the conflict.  Following the Scarborough Shoal stand-off in 2012, the government of the Philippines filed a statement of claim against China in the Arbitral Tribunal of UNCLOS.  The Philippines won this legal engagement, but the results may turn out to be insignificant due to several factors at play.  Due to its military and economic might, China can choose to retain control over Spratlys if it values their possession over its reputation with IOs such as the United Nations and ASEAN.  

IOs are excellent platforms for collaboration and negotiation between nations, but when the stakes are high, great powers can choose to disregard the rules and regulations set forth by them.  By carefully weighing out the consequences of non-compliance versus maintaining a good reputation, a great power may choose to simply pursue its own interests if it has the strength to do so.  Despite this inherent risk, “cooperation takes place in a world that is competitive to its core – one where states have powerful incentives to take advantage of other states.” The Philippines has an opportunity to place China’s international reputation on the line with the results of the arbitration.  If it does so, China might cooperate in order to ensure that it does not throw away future opportunities tied to a positive relationship with the United Nations and other IOs.  Unfortunately, the current Presidential administration of the Philippines is attempting to downplay the results of the arbitration, which could result in a lost opportunity, and the Philippines needs the backing of powerful allies such as the U.S. to give their efforts credibility. 

It can be anticipated that Filipino leadership who desire to not be bullied by China will begin to reassess the value of relying on IOs to protect its sovereignty. They have discovered that not all great powers are alike, and the same playbook they used to assert greater independence from the U.S. won’t work with China. The Philippines resorted to relying heavily on cooperation with IOs in order to maintain its sovereignty once it ordered the United States to remove its military presence from Filipino territories in 1992.  Shortly afterwards, China began making aggressive advances on Filipino maritime territory. These advances were not prevented or deterred by IOs or negotiations.  Professor Buszynski from Australian National University stresses that “Philippines Institutionalism’s inability to meet the interests of all parties is an incentive for aggrieved members to resort to realist strategies, in which case alliances or the balance of power may be invoked.” Institutionalism is an excellent strategy for increasing a nation’s prosperity and ensuring long-term development on a global scale, but it cannot stand on its own.  Involvement in IOs must be supported by credible military capabilities and alliances.


The Spratly Islands have become a focal point between a confrontational China attempting to assert itself in the world and the international community. Smaller nations like the Philippines who live in its shadow have relied on the credibility of global institutions and agreements to assert their sovereignty, though the future effectiveness of this strategy is in doubt. Policy wonks around the world have been discussing the potential outcomes of rising conflict between China and the U.S. as America finally walks away from its longest war and begins pursuing the “pivot to Asia” the Obama administration attempted to start. A critical issue raised by the conflict is now that America is paying attention to China’s actions at home and abroad and can clearly see how it is violating international law, what will America do about it? The answer will have far reaching implications for the future legitimacy of global institutions and efficacy of international law, especially if the U.S. abandons the institutions and laws it championed after WWII, or proves unable to support them. China’s actions in the region towards the Philippines demonstrate that all good intentions aside power, whether military, diplomatic, or economic, is still the dominant force in geopolitics. 

The views presented are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components

Major James Mackin is a communications officer in the United States Marine Corps with 12 years of service. He is currently deployed to the INDOPACOM area of operations with the III Marine Expeditionary Force. In his limited spare time, James studies international relations as a graduate student with American University.

Captain Scott Kelly is a special forces officer in 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, NC. He has previously served as an infantry officer at Fort Drum, NY and has nine years of military service. He is currently a graduate student at American University studying U.S. foreign policy.


Liam Reeves, “The South China Sea Disputes: Territorial and Maritime Differences Between the Philippines and China,” Journal of Global Faultlines 6, no. 1 (2019)

Monika Chansoria, “Arbitration as a Means to Settle Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea: Case Study and History of China and The Philippines,” Policy Brief, The Japan Institute of International Affairs, May 2020

Renato Cruz De Castro, “The 12 July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) Award: The Philippines’ Lawfare verses China’s Realpolitik in the South China Sea Dispute,” International Journal of China Studies 8, no. 3 (2017)

Monika Chansoria, “Arbitration as a Means to Settle Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea: Case Study and History of China and The Philippines,” Policy Brief, The Japan Institute of International Affairs, May 2020

“Realism” Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. 2021.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War (Translated by R. Grew. New York: Random House, 1982), 351

John J. Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of International Institutions,” International Security 19, no. 3 (1994-1995)

Lezek Buszynski, “Realism, Institutionalism, and Philippine Security,” Asian Survey 42, no. 3 (2002)

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