MANILA -- Earlier this year, the Philippines and China teetered on the brink of direct military confrontation over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, precipitating a series of high-stakes diplomatic exchanges that prevented open conflict but left the underlying dispute unresolved.
Although the episode jolted the Filipino leadership into recognizing the perils of armed brinkmanship with China, Manila’s subsequent diplomatic approach to the conflict has achieved little. After almost seven months of intensive diplomatic engagement with China and the states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), regional maritime tensions are still on the rise. Now, facing a potentially more assertive China under a new leadership, and in the absence of an effective regional approach to the ongoing territorial disputes, the Philippines seems to be running out of diplomatic options.
The Philippines finds itself heavily outmatched in asserting its territorial claims against China over a number of disputed islands, outcroppings and other features in the South China Sea. Facing a rapidly advancing Chinese navy and lacking an independent minimum defense capability, Manila has sought greater commitments from Washington to both the principle of freedom of navigation in the western Pacific and U.S. obligations under mutual defense treaties with allied nations in the region, including the Philippines, especially in the event of a direct confrontation with China over the disputed South China Sea territories.