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Philippines boosts military presence in South China Sea

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Philippines says that there're renewed incursions by China in areas of Philippine-claimed waters in the South China Sea. This week, the U.S. State Department issued a statement in support of the Philippines. The Chinese government has long insisted on its claim to much of the sea and accused the United States of stirring up tensions. NPR's Julie McCarthy has been following this story. Julie, thanks so much for being with us.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: What's China accused of doing?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, this is the latest in a series of what the Philippines calls swarming of Chinese fishing boats around reefs and shoals that lie within the Spratly Islands - these tiny, uninhabited but loaded with geopolitical significance islands. And the Spratlys lie within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, waters that they can legally claim. And in recent weeks, images have captured Chinese massing their fishing boats around a reef and a shoal within those waters. But analysts say, you know, satellite images show Chinese ships had a constant presence there, in this very same reef, for 12 months up until September 2022 - from two to 30 ships, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. They say this is one of the smaller deployments, but small or not, the Philippines says China's violating its sovereignty.

SIMON: Why is this smaller swarming different from some of the formal complaints that the Philippine government has made in the past about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea?

MCCARTHY: Well, first, the Philippine Senate got furious, and it condemned China and said it had to be stopped. Senator Francis Tolentino led that debate 10 days ago on the floor of the Senate, and he showed a video that depicts the Chinese Coast Guard in Philippine-claimed waters retrieving rocket debris. A small Philippine rubber patrol dinghy found it. And in the video, the Chinese sailors severed the Philippine tow line, something analysts say is a clear violation of maritime law. Here's what Senator Tolentino said about China's behavior.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCIS TOLENTINO: These actions are slowly but surely eroding Philippine sovereignty and harming the country's strategic position.

MCCARTHY: But perhaps, you know, the biggest difference, Scott, is that the United States entered the fray with a sort of full-throated support of the Philippines, saying China should meet its legal obligations under a 2016 ruling at The Hague. It said - that tribunal ruled that the Philippines has sovereign rights over its claimed waters and that China's vast claim to the South China Sea is illegal. Beijing has publicly denounced that ruling and refuses to abide by it. And this week, the Chinese embassy in Manila said the Americans were bent on driving a wedge between China and the Philippines. So now you have this trilateral controversy at a time when there's all this friction in the U.S.-China relations already. And let's not forget that this is unfolding against the backdrop of all these fraught cross-strait tensions between China and Taiwan, where the region is really getting skittish about the prospect of an armed conflict.

SIMON: And this occurs just in time for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to visit China the first week of January. How does that complicate the issues?

MCCARTHY: I think for Marcos Jr., this is a tricky balancing act. He would prefer not to alienate China. And at the same time, he's signaling to the Americans that China is very important to the Philippines diplomatically, you know, economically. I think we should look for this trip to be a charm offensive. Marcos Jr. is not likely to throw down any gauntlets with Xi Jinping over the South China Sea. It's not in his nature. He doesn't have the kind of sharp edge that his more blunt predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, had who didn't pull punches.

But Marcos has got to weigh up. You know, there's tremendous pressure back at home. We hear it in the Senate. His defense establishment is increasingly mad at China. The Philippine public registers a distinct distrust of Beijing. And there's an irony here for China. Despite all of this pushback in the Philippines, one analyst told me, China seems incapable of ratcheting down pressure to give the new Philippine government space. And the result is that China may be steadily pushing Marcos Jr. closer to the United States. And for the Americans, they know that aligns perfectly with their strategic argument. And they've been trying to advance that, both sides, over the last year. Let's see what 2023 brings.

SIMON: NPR's Julie McCarthy, thanks so much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.