Water Wars: The Philippines Calls for a South China Sea Paradigm Shift

The Philippines continues to resist China’s territorial claims; Presidents Biden and Xi meet in California; China and the U.S. reopen stalled military communications; and more.

USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) operates in the South China Sea in November 2023 (Source: US Navy Photo)

China-Philippines Standoff Shows No Signs of Cooling

The Philippines Engages International Partners to Counter China

In early January, the United States and the Philippines conducted their second joint South China Sea patrol, marking a “significant leap” in the two countries’ military cooperation. The joint patrol, referred to as a Maritime Cooperative Activity (MCA), involved four ships from the Philippine Navy and four ships from the U.S. Navy—USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), USS Princeton (CG-59), USS Kidd (DDG-100), and USS Sterett (DDG-104). Two Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy destroyers shadowed and observed U.S. and Philippine ships during their joint drills in the South China Sea. Following the MCA, Chinese foreign affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin criticized the U.S. and Philippines’s “muscle-flexing, provocative military activities” and urged the countries to cease “irresponsible moves” and “respect regional countries’ effort to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Despite China’s condemnation, the Philippines is reportedly open to joint patrols with more countries in the disputed South China Sea. The Philippines has conducted such patrols with both the United States and Australia in recent months, and Japan, New Zealand, the U.K., Canada, and France are under consideration for future joint patrols. Philippine National Security Council Assistant Director Jonathan Malaya claimed that “many countries” are interested in patrolling disputed waters alongside the Philippines. In response, the Chinese military’s Southern Theater Command accused the Philippines of “enlist[ing]” forces from outside of the region, which “stirred up trouble and engaged in hype, undermining regional peace and stability.” Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro responded by accusing China of “occupying” and “encroaching” in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea, and alleged that it is China, and not the Philippines, that is “stirring up trouble.”

The Philippines has also reportedly reached out to other South China Sea nations including Malaysia and Vietnam regarding a potential separate South China Sea code of conduct, due to the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s (ASEAN’s) limited success negotiating a similar agreement with China. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. lamented the slow progress of South China Sea code of conduct efforts thus far and expressed hopes that initiation of its own code of conduct would “grow further and extend to other ASEAN countries.”

In November 2023, during a two-day visit to Manila by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, he and President Marcos agreed to begin negotiations for a reciprocal troop access agreement between Japan and the Philippines. The agreement would give Japanese forces access to Philippine military installations in a manner similar to the Visiting Forces Agreement between the United States and the Philippines. Both Japan and the Philippines have been engaged in maritime territorial disputes with China. This step comes as the two countries, mutually concerned over China’s aggressiveness regarding claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea, seek to enhance their cooperation in the region. Upon announcing the planned reciprocal troop access pact, Kishida stated that the two countries “share serious concerns” regarding Beijing’s “unacceptable” unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea and South China Sea. 

In mid-November, the Philippines attended Japan-led multilateral naval exercises for the first time as an observer, a further sign of their deepening security cooperation. The exercises involved the navies of Japan, the U.S., Australia, and Canada. Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, commented that he was “thrilled” that Japan invited the Philippines to participate in the exercises as an observer this year. “The more that our navies work together, the more multilateral our operations and our exercises are, the greater the security for this region,” Thomas stated.

Japan has also committed to boosting the Philippines’s defense capability through exports of Japanese-made radar systems. During the Kishida-Marcos meeting in November, Japan agreed to provide the Philippines with coastal radar systems worth approximately $4 million. Additionally, in December 2023, Japan delivered an air radar surveillance system to the Philippines, the first of four radar systems Japan agreed to provide as part of a defense equipment and technology transfer agreement signed with the Philippines in 2020. According to Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, the radar system can detect approaching aircraft and missiles and will help counter China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea.

 The Philippines Opens a New Coast Guard Monitoring Station on South China Sea Island

On Dec. 1, 2023, the Philippines opened a new Coast Guard station on Thitu Island (China: Zhongye Dao; Philippines: Pag-asa Island; Taiwan: Zhongye Qunjiao; Vietnam: Đảo Thị Tứ), a disputed, Philippine-occupied island in the South China Sea. According to the Associated Press, the newly constructed station will have “radar, ship-tracking, and other monitoring equipment to monitor China’s actions in the hotly disputed waters.” During a visit to the island monitoring station, Philippine National Security Adviser Eduardo Ana accused the Chinese Coast Guard, People’s Liberation Army Navy, and maritime militia of “unpredictable” behavior contrary to the rule of law and called their gray-zone tactics “pure bullying and … purely illegal.”

 China and the Philippines Clash Repeatedly Over Second Thomas Shoal

 As reported in an October 2023 Lawfare article, China and the Philippines engaged in a standoff regarding the BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-era vessel intentionally grounded by the Philippines in 1999 on Second Thomas Shoal (Philippines: Ayungin Shoal; China: Ren’ai Jiao; Taiwan: Ren’ai Ansha; Vietnam: Bãi Cỏ Mây). Since 1999, the ship has maintained a garrison of military personnel to reinforce its claim of sovereignty over the shoal, which China contests. In October 2023, China attempted to block several Philippine resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre garrison, which led to two collisions between Chinese and Philippine vessels. 

In November 2023, Manila again accused China of interfering with its resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre. According to Philippine authorities, a Chinese Coast Guard ship fired water cannons at the Philippine vessel M/L Kalayaan, and Chinese maritime militia vessels engaged in “harassment” of the Philippine resupply mission. China Coast Guard spokesman Gan Yu accused the Philippine vessels of entering the disputed waters “without the permission of the Chinese Government” and asserted China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the maritime territory. The Philippines, in turn, condemned China’s “latest unprovoked acts of coercion.” Its foreign ministry rejected China’s assertion that the Philippines must give China prior notice of its resupply missions within “its own territory” in the South China Sea. According to the Associated Press, at least 38 Chinese vessels were observed near Second Thomas Shoal on the day of the resupply mission, and several Chinese ships attempted to surround Philippine Coast Guard vessels. Philippines Coast Guard spokesperson Jay Tarriela affirmed that the Philippines would continue its resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre garrison in spite of China’s interference. “We are still going to carry out these dangerous missions despite our limited number of vessels and despite the increasing number of Chinese vessels,” Tarriela stated. “We have to make sure the supplies will still reach our troops.” In response to this latest incident, the U.S. State Department warned that the United States would be obligated to defend the Philippines under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty if Philippine vessels suffered an armed attack.

Following the resupply incident in November 2023, the Chinese Coast Guard again deployed water cannons against Philippine vessels purportedly entering Chinese waters without permission, this time in the vicinity of the disputed Scarborough Shoal (China: Huangyan Dao; Philippines: Panatag Shoal). According to the Philippines, in addition to using water cannons against Philippine vessels at least eight times during the incident, the Chinese vessels also deployed a “long-range acoustic device,” which damaged one Philippine boat’s communication and navigation equipment and temporarily incapacitated some members of its crew. Both the Philippines and the U.S. condemned China’s actions. China maintained that it had “implemented control measures in line with the law” and warned the United States to stay out of the “purely Asian dispute.”

On Dec. 10, 2023, another resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre on Second Thomas Shoal was interrupted by Chinese interference, which resulted in damage to two Philippine vessels. Tarriela posted on social media that a Chinese vessel deployed a water cannon that damaged the mast of the BRP Cabra and caused “severe damage” to the engine of the civilian-chartered resupply vessel M/L Kalavaan, which had to be towed back to port. One Philippine resupply vessel was able to reach the BRP Sierra Madre to deliver supplies and passengers, but only after allegedly being rammed by a Chinese vessel. Philippine Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Romeo Brawner was reportedly aboard one of the resupply ships and claimed that his vessel was both sprayed with a water cannon and rammed by a Chinese vessel during the incident. Narratives about the ramming are conflicting, however. In contrast to the Philippine’s report, the Chinese Coast Guard claimed that the Philippine vessel intentionally rammed the Chinese vessel.

On Dec. 12, 2023, the Philippine foreign ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest China’s actions and asked Beijing to cease its illegal actions and “stop interfering in legitimate Philippine activities.” President Marcos acknowledged that diplomatic efforts between the Philippines and China were heading “in a poor direction.” As traditional methods of diplomacy have made little progress in recent years, he stressed the need for interested countries to “come up with a paradigm shift” for dealing with South China Sea conflicts. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, responded that China-Philippines relations were “standing at a crossroads” and warned the Philippines to “act with caution” and “return to the right path” in managing their disputes. In a social media post, Marcos stated that China’s actions “have only further steeled our determination to defend and protect our nation’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea” and that the Philippines remains “undeterred.” Nonetheless, a civilian-led Christmas resupply convoy initially planned to deliver donated supplies and Christmas gifts to Philippine outposts in the South China Sea was canceled following the standoff with China.

In response to the series of incidents between China and the Philippines, ASEAN foreign ministers issued a statement expressing concerns over recent developments undermining regional security. Their statement reiterated “the importance of peaceful dialogue that contributes constructively to the promotion of regional stability and cooperation in the maritime domain.” Meanwhile, the Philippines is reportedly conducting contingency planning for future Chinese escalations, including the possibility that Chinese forces may try to board their vessels. Some analysts have expressed concerns that the maritime incidents between China and the Philippines could escalate to such a point that the United States will find itself in direct conflict with China due to its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, raising questions regarding what might constitute an “armed attack” that would trigger the U.S.’s obligations under the treaty.

The Philippines Floats Plan for a Permanent Structure on Second Thomas Shoal

In mid-December 2023, Philippine Sen. Sonny Angara told CNN Philippines that legislators had allocated funds to build a permanent structure on Second Thomas Shoal, the site of the Philippines’s outpost aboard the deteriorating grounded warship BRP Sierra Madre, and the subject of heated a territorial dispute between China and the Philippines. Although the shoal is located within the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and China’s claim over the territory was invalidated by a 2016 arbitral ruling in favor of the Philippines, Beijing continues to assert sovereignty over the shoal and its surrounding waters. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning called the plan to build a permanent structure “a significant move” that would “seriously infringe on China’s sovereignty,” and to which China would respond “resolutely.” Zhihua Zheng, head of the East Asia Marine Policy Project at the Center for Japanese Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, writes that Philippine efforts to build a permanent structure on Second Thomas Shoal could, among other possible outcomes, prompt Beijing to construct its own permanent structure on the shoal in retaliation or even catalyze “a new round of occupation activities on uninhabited islands and reefs, leading to heightened tensions and plunging the South China Sea into deeper chaos.”

Lawfare in the China-Philippines Conflict

In September 2023, reports surfaced that the Philippines was considering bringing a second international legal action against China over its fishing vessels’ harvesting and destruction of coral reefs within the Philippines’s EEZ. Although the Philippines previously won a legal victory against China in the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration, which invalidated China’s expansive maritime claims, China has openly defied the ruling, referring to it as merely “a piece of waste paper.” Analysts say that even if the Philippines were to win a second international arbitration, it would not likely have any effect on Beijing’s behavior. The Philippines seems to be aware of this and, rather than relying on adherence to the tribunal’s rulings, plans instead to use the arbitration to continue gradually “chipping further away” at China’s international image. This appears in line with the Philippines’s 2023 strategy of publicizing China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea to provide a counternarrative to what it claims is “Chinese propaganda.” 

Although the South China Sea conflict between China and the Philippines has escalated in recent months to water cannons, acoustic devices, and ramming of vessels, China still may have some legal weapons at its disposal. Kuenchen Fu, a research fellow with the Belt and Road Institute at Xiamen University, believes that Beijing could pursue any of several legal courses of action against Manila if tensions between the two countries remain high. These include claiming traditional fishing rights within Philippine archipelagic waters under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Article 51, challenging the Philippines’s claim to the Kalayaan Islands (over which the Philippines began asserting sovereignty in the 1970s), and challenging the Philippines’s archipelagic baselines, 3 percent of which Fu alleges exceed 100 nautical miles in violation of UNCLOS Article 47.

A Renewed Push for the United States to Ratify UNCLOS

Although UNCLOS entered into force in 1994 and was submitted to the Senate for advice and consent by President Clinton that same year, the United States has yet to become a party to the convention. To date, multiple measures have been introduced supporting U.S. accession to UNCLOS (recently, H.Res.361 and S.Res.220), but none has been enacted. Differing views over deep-seabed mining, domestic enforcement of marine regulations, international arbitration of conflicts, and preference for bilateral agreements rather than broad international conventions have served as barriers to U.S. accession.

Nonetheless, 29 years after the convention first entered into force, a group of U.S. senators reintroduced a resolution calling for UNCLOS ratification. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) initiated the resolution and have been joined as co-sponsors by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Angus King (I-Maine), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). In support of the push for ratification, Van Hollen asserted that “sitting on the sidelines of UNCLOS” undermines U.S. standing to advocate for freedom of navigation and ocean protection and jeopardizes U.S. national security and commercial interests. Hirono claimed that failure to ratify the convention prevents the United States from “engaging in important international conversations about our oceans and seas.” Kaine asserted that ratification would help “underscore” the U.S. commitment to worldwide freedom of navigation. Murkowski emphasized that “the longer we sit out, the longer the rest of the world will continue to set the agenda of maritime domain, from seabed mining to critical subsea infrastructure,” and claimed that ratification would help “keep China’s illegal territorial advances at bay.” King, co-chair of the Arctic Caucus, emphasized the importance of mining critical minerals to the U.S.’s technological future and claimed that if the U.S. fails to assert its rights in the Arctic, it would allow rival countries to “seize opportunities in our maritime territory.” Murkowski hopes that the burgeoning Chinese interest in the Arctic and “skyrocketing demand for critical minerals” will cause this attempt at ratification to succeed where others have failed.

Notwithstanding the senators’ arguments, the prospects of Senate ratification “appear slippery,” as some lawmakers fear that becoming a party to the convention would limit U.S. power. Opponents to ratification are concerned that acceding to the convention would provide no benefits that the United States does not already have access to, and would instead impose new burdens and limitations.

United States and China Break Diplomatic Ice Following Biden-Xi Meeting 

On Nov. 15, 2023, President Biden hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in Woodside, California, before a summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in San Francisco. Prior to this meeting, Biden and Xi had met only once in person since Biden’s 2021 inauguration. The November meeting also marked Xi’s first visit to the United States since 2017, with then-President Trump.

The two leaders discussed a wide range of bilateral and global issues, which included both areas of potential cooperation and areas of difference. A White House readout of the meeting reported that while Biden “emphasized that the United States and China are in competition,” the two leaders made progress on issues including bilateral cooperation on combating illicit drug trafficking, addressing the risks of advanced artificial intelligence systems, tackling the climate crisis, and exploring best practices to maintain peace between the two countries. The United States and China also committed to resuming high-level military-to-military communication, including the U.S.-China Defense Policy Coordination Talks and the U.S.-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meetings.

Following the Biden-Xi meeting, on Dec. 21, 2023, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General CQ Brown, Jr. spoke with his Chinese counterpart, the People’s Liberation Army chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Gen. Liu Zhenli, via video conference call. This was the first time senior military officials of the United States and China were speaking in over a year, after bilateral military communications were severed when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022. Since Speaker Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, U.S.-China relations have been strained, and U.S. military leaders have expressed concerns over China’s silence: China had “consistently denied or ignored” U.S. requests for defense engagements. 

During the conversation between Brown and Liu, Brown emphasized “the importance of working together to responsibly manage competition, avoid miscalculations, and maintain open and direct lines of communication” in order to “reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings.” Liu, in response, asserted that the key to a healthy U.S.-China military relationship is for the United States to have a “correct understanding of China.” Liu also asked that the United States respect China’s territorial sovereignty over both Taiwan and the South China Sea. Both countries viewed the conversation as an important step in the right direction, while acknowledging that resolving long-standing disputes would require a long-term process. A senior official at the Department of Defense told Politico that while the meeting between the two generals was an “‘important’ step, it is ‘just one step.’” Chinese analysts felt similarly, writing that the military talks were “a significant step towards restoring relations between the two militaries” but that concrete actions remain to be seen.

Progress in bilateral military relations continued into the new year. On Jan. 8, senior Chinese military officials visited Washington for the Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT), a two-day meeting that allowed both the United States and China an opportunity to share concerns and to set a schedule for subsequent military meetings. The U.S. delegation at the DPCT included Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China, Taiwan and Mongolia Michael Chase and a team of Pentagon officials. The Chinese delegation was led by the deputy director of the China’s Central Military Commission’s Office for International Military Cooperation, Maj. Gen. Song Yanchao. In a readout, the Pentagon reported that the two countries discussed U.S.-China defense relations, which included operational safety in the Indo-Pacific region, and regional and global security issues, which included topics such as the South China Sea, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, recent provocations from North Korea, and Taiwan. The Pentagon also reiterated its commitment to continued engagement with Chinese counterparts about future military engagements.

China and Southeast Asia Improve Diplomatic Relations

In addition to progress on the military front with the United States, China also made diplomatic strides in South East Asia. In November 2023, diplomats from China and ASEAN agreed to renew their commitments to finalizing a nonaggression pact for the South China Sea in three years. The vow comes after recent tension between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, and after ASEAN diplomats expressed concerns over the heating conflict. Notably, China and ASEAN have been striving to create a “code of conduct” to prevent armed conflict in the South China Sea for years, and negotiations have stalled in the past. The agreement between China and ASEAN occurred during the latest round of negotiations, hosted by Beijing.

In December 2023, China and Vietnam—despite overlapping claims in the South China Sea—agreed to bolster bilateral relations and build toward a “shared future.” The agreement was announced during President Xi’s recent visit to Vietnam and coincided with the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Vietnam-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which launched in 2008. Specifically, Vietnam agreed to join China’s “community of common destiny,” elevating bilateral relations to a higher level. The two countries also signed 36 cooperation agreements—half of which were nonbinding—in areas ranging from infrastructure to trade and security. Though the contents of the agreements were not disclosed to the public, they include a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on strengthening railway cooperation between Vietnam and China and cross-border railway development, an MoU on joint naval patrols to bolster defense ties, and a pledge to develop an economic zone between the two countries to increase bilateral trade and investment. Both countries celebrated the agreements: Vietnam’s state media described Xi’s visit as a “historic milestone,” and Xi published an editorial in Vietnam’s “Nhan Dan” newspaper asserting that the China-Vietnam “community of common destiny” would deliver across all aspects of bilateral relations. The formal improvement in Vietnam-China relations comes shortly after Vietnam upgraded its formal relations with the United States.

Chinese Military Activity Escalates in the South China Sea

China “Announces” Daily Patrols of Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands

On Nov. 29, 2023, following President Xi’s visit to a Chinese Coast Guard command office in Shanghai, China, unidentified sources shared with Japan’s Kyodo News that the Chinese Coast Guard had drafted a plan to keep its ships near the contested Senkaku Islands (Chinese: Diaoyu Islands) for 365 days in 2024 to bolster Beijing’s sovereignty claim over the islets. During Xi’s meeting with the Coast Guard, he emphasized that Beijing must “resolutely protect China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,” referring to the Senkaku Islands (Chinese: Diaoyu Islands). Xi also highlighted the need to crack down on illegal activity at sea and encouraged cooperation with foreign countries in maritime law enforcement. Though the daily patrols announcement was not included in official remarks released by China’s foreign ministry, Japan’s Coast Guard reported that eight Chinese ships were identified near the Senkaku Islands (Chinese: Diaoyu Islands) on Jan. 1, and four ships were reported there in the following days. In 2023, the number of days Chinese vessels were spotted near the Senkaku Islands (Chinese: Diaoyu Islands) by Japan surpassed the number of Chinese vessel sightings in 2022, setting an all-time record: On Dec. 14, the sighting marked 337 days. Japanese officials declined to comment on whether Japan was attempting to confirm the reports from Beijing, but U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel criticized the Chinese Coast Guard’s alleged plan, tweeting: “On New Year’s Day [Chinese] leadership announced that they will keep ships in and around Japan’s Senkaku Islands for 365 consecutive days, quite the New Year’s resolution.”

The reported announcement of daily patrols comes at a time of increasing conflict between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands (Chinese: Diaoyu Islands). In December 2023, China and Japan traded accusations over a confrontation between their coast guards near the islands, with similar incidents occurring in October and November. Also in December, in an interview with Kyodo News, an unnamed Chinese military officer stated that while Beijing did not want war over the disputed islands, it was also “not fearful” of armed conflict.

China Appoints New Defense Minister

On Dec. 29, Adm. Dong Jun, a former commander of the Chinese Navy, was appointed China’s 14th minister of national defense and state councillor at the seventh meeting of the Standing Committee of the 14th National People’s Congress. Dong replaced the former Chinese defense minister, Li Shangfu, who was removed from his role without explanation in October 2023. Some news outlets have reported that Li is facing a corruption-related investigation.

Military analysts such as Andrew Erikson and Christopher Sharman from the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College state that Dong’s previous experiences as head of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and in operational assignments in the Chinese military’s Eastern and Southern theater commands make him qualified for the position. Dong participated in the joint naval exercise with Russia and has experience interacting with other countries’ navies in the South China Sea. As minister of national defense, Dong will not have much authority over the People’s Liberation Army but will instead act as a “diplomat-liaison representing the PLA” and the CMC in interactions with counterparts from foreign militaries.

Dong is the first naval officer to be elevated to this position, and analysts have stated that his appointment symbolizes a shift in China’s military priorities toward territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University, for example, told Voice of America News that “[t]he new defense minister’s appointment and the elevation of a new crop of top military officers with navy and South China Sea experience is a sign that China sees South China Sea as a new priority area of geopolitical contestation between China and the U.S.” Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy at King’s College in London, expressed a similar opinion to CNN, stating that the appointment suggests that the Navy is “the one that combines technical and professional knowledge with the aims of keeping China projecting power in its immediate periphery.”

Other Military Activity in the South China Sea

  • In November 2023, China hosted a joint military exercise, known as the Aman Youyi – 2023 (Peace and Friendship – 2023) drills, with five Southeast Asian nations in Zhanjiang, China. The Southeast Asian nations included Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. China’s Ministry of National Defense issued a statement, saying that the exercise would focus on combating anti-terrorism and protecting maritime security. This is the first time that Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are participating in the Aman Youyi drills, which were started by China and Malaysia in 2014.

  • Also in November 2023, Australian Minister for Defense Richard Marles expressed “serious concerns” regarding “unsafe and unprofessional interaction with a People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) destroyer.” Specifically, Marles stated that a PLAN destroyer (DDG-139) approached Australian divers clearing fishing nets in Japan’s EEZ and used its sonar device near them, causing minor injuries. China, in response, “firmly rejected Australia’s accusations” and said the claims were “completely untrue.” China also questioned the Australian Navy’s presence in the South China Sea and called for “any kind of pre-consultations or notification” of Australian military presence in the water to prevent conflict escalation in the future. This was not the first time the Chinese military has been accused of unsafe encounters with foreign militaries; China has previously been accused of unsafe conduct by Canada and the United States.

  • On Dec. 6, 2023, the Chinese military reportedly shadowed a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft (P-8A Poseidon) as it flew through the Taiwan Strait as part of a routine transit. The U.S. Navy stated that the Poseidon’s trip was meant to “demonstrate the U.S. commitment to a stable, free, and open Indo-Pacific, and confirm that the U.S. Navy flies, sails, and operates anywhere international law allows.” The Chinese military, however, called the Poseidon’s flight a “provocative move” and asserted that the “troops of the PLA Eastern Theater Command will remain on high alert at all times to resolutely safeguard China’s sovereignty and security as well as regional peace and stability.”

  • On Dec. 14, Russia and China conducted a joint bomber flight over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, pursuant to an annual cooperation plan between the Chinese and Russian militaries. The joint flight included Tu-95MS strategic missile carriers and H-6K strategic bombers. The military exercise caused both South Korea and Japan to scramble fighter jets in response. South Korea scrambled fighter jets after it had detected Chinese and Russian planes entering the Korea Air Defense Identification Zone in the East Sea, preparing for contingencies. Japan’s Joint Staff Office released a map showing the flight path of the Russian and Chinese aircraft.

Japan Strengthens Security Partnerships in Region Amid Tension With China

Xi, Kishida Meet as Japan-China Tension Escalates

On Nov. 17, 2023, Kishida met Xi on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco, their first face-to-face meeting in a year. 

According to a report from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Xi and Kishida reaffirmed their commitment to “comprehensively promote a ‘Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests,’” and the two leaders agreed to build “constructive and stable Japan-China relations” to develop a new era of bilateral relations. To that end, Xi and Kishida agreed to convene the Japan-China High-Level Economic Dialogue, which would work on achieving progress in areas of cooperation, such as promoting a green economy, medical care, nursing care, and health care. The two leaders also supported the launch of the Japan-China Export Control Dialogue, an initiative consisting of regular talks on export controls to avoid escalating tit-for-tat measures that could disrupt supply chains of sensitive material and technologies. Lastly, Xi and Kishida agreed to “strengthen dialogue on macro-economy” and to “further expand people-to-people exchanges in various areas,” including holding the Japan-China High-Level People-to-People and Cultural Exchange Dialogue in the near future.

Xi and Kishida also discussed recent causes of tension between the two nations. Prime Minister Kishida, for example, expressed concerns over the escalating situation in the South China Sea and the “intensification of China’s military activities,” and emphasized the need for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The two leaders also discussed China’s recent ban on Japanese seafood following Japan’s decision to release treated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea. Xi and Kishida agreed to try and resolve the issue through further consultations.

Though some media reports have called  the Xi-Kishida meeting a critical sign of progress, other analysts, particularly among the Japanese media, have dismissed the meeting as “pointless,” given that China seemed reluctant to resolve issues of concern raised by Japan. Tensions between the two countries have increased in particular due to growing Chinese presence around the Senkaku Islands (Chinese: Diaoyu Islands), reported above. These tensions have led to the decision to open a hotline between Japan and China’s defense establishments. 

Japan Deepens Ties With ASEAN, Vietnam, Malaysia

  • On Nov. 5, 2023, Kishida and Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim agreed to “promote bilateral defense and maritime security cooperation” during a meeting in Malaysia. In addition to bolstering a security partnership, the two countries affirmed cooperation over trade and investment, education, and energy—particularly over Malaysia’s exports of liquified natural gas. Ibrahim and Kishida also agreed to accelerate implementation of the Official Security Assistance (OSA) program, Japan’s new cooperation framework that aims to “deepen[] security cooperation … for the economic and social development of developing countries” through grants of equipment and supplies, as well as assistance for infrastructure development to recipient countries. Japan announced four Indo-Pacific region countries—Bangladesh, Fiji, Malaysia, and the Philippines—as OSA recipients for the fiscal year through March 2024. Both leaders expressed optimism over “a new vision of cooperation” between the two countries, as well as between Japan and ASEAN.

  • On Nov. 27, 2023, Kishida and Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong  announced the Vietnam-Japan Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, following Thuong’s visit to Tokyo. A joint statement from the two nations reports that Thuong and Kishida agreed to bolster “substantive and effective defense cooperation,” including in maritime security and safety, as well as expanding bilateral cooperation in areas such as trade and the economy, and climate change. Notably, Japan and Vietnam agreed to begin consultations to discuss the possibility of Vietnam being a grant recipient of Japan’s OSA program.

  • On Dec. 17, 2023, leaders of Japan and ASEAN met for a special summit in Tokyo, Japan, to celebrate 50 years of official Japan-ASEAN relations, which started in 1973 over trade talks on Japanese synthetic rubber exports. Following the summit, Japan and ASEAN adopted the Joint Vision Statement on ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation Trusted Partners and Its Implementation Plan. The statement reaffirms Japan and ASEAN’s continued commitment to “uphold international law, including the UN Charter and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” and outlines three pillars to strengthen cooperation between the two entities. Specifically, Japan and ASEAN committed to “ further fostering ‘heart-to-heart’ relationship of mutual trust, mutual understanding, and mutual respect” by encouraging people-to-people exchanges and enhancing educational cooperation; co-creating a “prosperous and sustainable economy and society”; and promoting a “rules-based Indo-Pacific region that is free and open.” The joint vision statement was accompanied by an implementation plan of 130 projects, ranging from the facilitation of youth exchanges between Japan and ASEAN, to accelerating trade flows between the two entities through World Trade Organization reform and bilateral exchanges. 

Japan, South Korea, United States Hold First Indo-Pacific Dialogue

On Jan. 5, leaders of South Korea, Japan, and the United States convened the inaugural trilateral Indo-Pacific Dialogue in Washington, following the trilateral summit among the United States, South Korea, and Japan in August 2023 (previously covered in Lawfare). U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel J. Kritenbrink, Japanese Deputy Minister / Director-General Kobe Yasuhiro, and South Korean Deputy Minister Chung Byung-won led the dialogue

According to a joint statement released by the three countries, the representatives of the United States, Japan, and South Korea highlighted the need for “enhanced trilateral cooperation” and emphasized “partnership with Southeast Asian and Pacific Island countries.” Specifically, the three nations reaffirmed their commitment to regional forums and groupings, such as ASEAN, the Friends of the Mekong, the Partners in the Blue Pacific, the Pacific Islands Forum, and the UN Security Council. They also identified areas of mutual concern that required joint cooperation, which include enhancing regional economic security, combating climate change, addressing cybersecurity and emerging technology, and bolstering maritime security and law enforcement cooperation in the region. Lastly, the three countries expressed concerns about China’s military activity in the Indo-Pacific, stating that they “strongly reiterated their firm commitment to international law,” as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and “opposed any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion anywhere in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.”

China sharply refuted the joint statement released from the inaugural trilateral dialogue. During a daily press briefing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning expressed serious concern about the joint statement’s reference on China, stating: “China has noted the U.S.-Japan-ROK dialogue and its resulting joint statement. We firmly oppose the attempt from these countries to cobble together exclusionary groupings in the name of cooperation, grossly interfere in China’s internal affairs, attack and smear China and stoke confrontation and antagonism.”

US Military Developments in the Indo-Pacific

U.S. Marine Corps Stands Up a Second Marine Littoral Regiment

In mid-November 2023, the U.S. Marine Corps formally converted the former Japan-based 12th Marine Regiment into the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR). This is the second Marine Regiment (of a planned three) to be transformed under Force Design 2030 (the 3rd Marine Regiment was redesignated the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment in March 2022). According to the Marine Corps, the MLRs are designed to have “low electronic and physical signatures,” which makes them easy to maintain and sustain. They are designed for deployment in “austere, temporary locations ashore within a contested or potentially contested maritime area to conduct sea denial … sea control, and fleet sustainment operations.”

National Security Adviser Conducts Trilateral Meeting With Japanese and ROK Counterparts

On Dec. 9, 2023, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with Republic of Korea National Security Adviser Cho Tae-Yong and Japanese National Security Advisor Takeo Akiba to discuss the next steps in their trilateral cooperation. Among topics discussed were efforts to align the three countries’ Indo-Pacific strategies, North Korea’s use of cryptocurrency to generate revenue for production of weapons of mass destruction, trilateral sharing of ballistic missile defense data, and economic security initiatives.

Aircraft Carrier USS Carl Vinson Operates Throughout the Indo-Pacific Region

In November 2023, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) participated in multilateral annual exercises led by Japan, which also included the militaries of Canada, Australia, and the Philippines (as an observer). The exercises were conducted in the Philippine Sea and rehearsed “enhanced maritime communication tactics, anti-submarine warfare operations, air warfare operations, and replenishments at sea.”

Following the exercises, the USS Carl Vinson made a port call in Busan, Republic of Korea. Rear Adm. Carlos Sardiello, commander of Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 1 (of which the Carl Vinson is the flagship), commented that “[a]n aircraft carrier port visit demonstrates the United States’ commitment to an alliance between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea … cooperation between the U.S. and Republic of Korea navies is critical to maintaining peace and security in Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula.”

After departing the Republic of Korea, the Carl Vinson stopped for another port visit in Singapore before returning to the South China Sea to conduct maritime security operations, including “flight operations with fixed and rotary wing aircraft, maritime strike exercises, and coordinated tactical training between surface and air units.” Sardiello remarked that “[t]he United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate safely, wherever international law allows—so that all nations can benefit from use of the maritime commons. This includes the South China Sea, where nearly $4 trillion in trade transits each year and it has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds that employ an estimated 3.7 million people.” He also stated that training exercises in the Indo-Pacific “increase our combined readiness with like-minded allies and partners to demonstrate our shared commitment to the rules-based international order.”

On Jan. 5, the Carl Vinson arrived for a port visit to the Philippines, marking “an additional demonstration of the U.S.-Philippine alliance, and broader commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.” During their visit to the Philippines, sailors from CSG 1 participated in cultural exchanges and community relations events.

Freedom of Navigation Operations

The destroyer USS Rafael Peralta (DDG-115) conducted a Taiwan Strait transit alongside Canadian frigate HMCS Ottawa (FFH-341) in early November. The U.S. 7th Fleet stated that the transit “demonstrated the two countries’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific” and “represents the centerpiece of our approach to a secure and prosperous region where aircraft and ships of all nations may fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows.”

In late November 2023, the destroyer USS Hopper (DDG-70) conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the vicinity of the disputed Paracel Islands (China: Xisha Qundao; Vietnam: Quần đảo Hoàng Sa), which are claimed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan. In a public affairs statement, the U.S. 7th Fleet called the sail “consistent with international law.” The statement maintained that “[u]nlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas” and that “[t]he United States challenges excessive maritime claims around the world regardless of the identity of the claimant.”

Destroyer USS Gabrielle Giffords Sails Near Second Thomas Shoal, Draws China’s Ire

In early December 2023, the Chinese military accused a U.S. destroyer of “illegally intrud[ing]” into waters near Second Thomas Shoal, the site of an escalating territorial dispute between China and the Philippines, without the approval of the Chinese government. The Chinese military tracked the ship’s movements during its transit. China’s Southern Theater Command accused the U.S. of “deliberately disrupt[ing] the situation in the South China Sea” and “seriously violat[ing] China’s sovereignty and security” as well as undermining peace and stability in the region and violating international law and basic norms governing international relations. The U.S. 7th Fleet responded that the USS Gabrielle Giffords had conducted “routine operations in international waters … consistent with international law” and reiterated the U.S.’s commitment to upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific.


New research from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reveals that increased geopolitical competition over territorial claims in the South China Sea has caused severe ecological damage in the region. CSIS reports that countries such as China have engaged in dredging—the removal of silt, sediments, and other materials from the seabed for the purpose of creating channels, harbors, or gathering material for landfill—and overfishing in the South China Sea to support their territorial claims, and that this activity has “destroyed vast areas of the [region’s] coral reef ecosystems over the last 10 years.” The research also indicates that China has played the largest role in the destruction of the marine ecosystem in the South China Sea, “destroying or severely damaging at least 21,183 acres of coral reef—and likely much more—through island expansion and giant clam harvesting.” In response to these findings, CSIS urges that efforts must be made among regional governments, researchers, and environmental organizations to curb the destruction of the region.

The New York Times published an interactive feature explaining China’s domination of the South China Sea through its “maritime militia,” which “is made up of civilians who on paper hold jobs as commercial fisherman” but provide “backup to the China Coast Guard and maintain[] a constant presence in remote waters,” to “amplify China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.” In addition to the growing fleet of fishing vessels, the Times reports that the Chinese Coast Guard, which is now the world’s largest, has also redefined its role, “veering dangerously close to a military stance.” The combination of the expanded Chinese Coast Guard, supported by a maritime militia, the New York Times argues, helps “China quietly gain command over disputed areas.”

And, lastly, in response to increasing tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, Chester Cabalza, Joshua Bernard Espeña, and Ralph Romulus Frondoa argue in an editorial in the Geopolitical Monitor that joint patrols in the South China Sea may help to deescalate the tense situation. Specifically, they argue that a joint patrol “can recalibrate the asymmetry of military squabble in the tense maritime region and ultimately deter China collectively over time” because it serves as a “norm-building activity” that helps Indo-Pacific nations develop “strategic practice” to counter China and “create effective responses to international maritime violations.” Cabalza, Espeña, and Frondoa assert that with consistent joint patrols, China may instead resort to diplomacy rather than collision in the South China Sea. 

Teresa Chen, Alana Nance. Published courtesy of Lawfare

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