China is testing the United States.
The ramming of Philippine resupply and coast guard vessels last week is the latest in a string of incidents dating back to the beginning of this year. Chinese maritime forces have also raised tensions with Vietnam and Malaysia, but Xi Jinping has been focused like a laser beam — literally — on disputes with Manila in 2023.
Chinese ships have directed a military-grade laser at a Philippines Coast Guard vessel, blasted Philippine charter boats with water cannons, and erected physical barriers at Scarborough Shoal, a traditional Philippine fishing ground legally recognized by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
Targeting Manila may seem an odd choice. After all, the Philippines is the only South China Sea claimant that is formally allied to the United States. But that may be precisely the point.
Both the Joe Biden and Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. administrations have prioritized the alliance over the last year. President Biden welcomed Philippines President Marcos to Washington; the United States and the Philippines held their largest-ever bilateral military exercise; and the two hosted maritime drills in early October that included five of America’s closest treaty allies. Most significantly, the two countries agreed to an expansion of the facilities to which the U.S. military has access under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), originally signed in 2014.
Marcos has approached ties to China — and disputes with China — with greater backbone than his predecessor, and is intent on defending Philippine rights in the South China Sea. Hence Manila’s decision to remove a China-installed barrier at Scarborough Shoal last month.
At the same time, Manila is worried about trends in the Taiwan Strait. As Marcos put it in February, “should there in fact be conflict in that area…it’s very hard to imagine a scenario where the Philippines will not somehow get involved.” Refreshingly, Manila is not backing down from that eventuality. In the updated EDCA agreement, it granted access to facilities in the north of the Philippines — facilities that could play a role in a Taiwan Strait crisis and, thus, contribute to American deterrent posture in the region.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has rhetorically committed itself to defending the Philippines in the South China Sea. In a joint statement in May, Biden reaffirmed “the United States’ ironclad alliance commitments to the Philippines, underscoring that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, would invoke US mutual defense commitments.” That message was reiterated last Sunday.
Arguably, China has already crossed that threshold. This is by design. Having watched the U.S. response to Russia’s war on Ukraine and now the response to Hamas’s barbarism in Israel, Beijing knows that the Biden administration is at times paralyzed by the fear of escalation. It is little wonder that Xi Jinping seeks to discern whether those same fears apply to the Indo-Pacific, given the Biden administration’s insistence, per the National Defense Strategy, that China presents “the most comprehensive and series challenge to U.S. national security.”
As of now, Biden is failing the test. China has faced no consequences for targeting the Philippines. Unless Beijing perceives the United States as willing to risk escalation over the resupply of a small Philippine outpost on Second Thomas Shoal, Chinese maritime forces will make life increasingly difficult for Philippine ships, aircraft and marines operating in the South China Sea.
The United States should not wait for the first casualty before it acts, nor should it wait until the moment when Manila decides it must withdraw its forces from Second Thomas Shoal. Action now can prevent those eventualities and the crisis that could result. As a first step, the United States should deploy Coast Guard cutters to convoy Philippine resupply vessels making their way to Second Thomas Shoal. President Biden should be prepared to send naval vessels to take over the task should Chinese misbehavior continue.
The world is entering a phase of widespread disorder. The dams have already burst in Europe and the Middle East. Now, China is testing the strength of leaky levees in Asia. If the United States does not reinforce the embankments now, it will face a global deluge.
Michael Mazza is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior nonresident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.