December 11, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 553

Xi's Dilemma In The China-Philippines Dispute Over The South China Sea

December 11, 2023 | By Chris King*
China | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 553

The maritime dispute between China and Philippines has been escalating in recent months, and on December 3, 2023, the tensions between the two countries raised alarm bells again. In the latest development, Manila said it was "alarming" to see that 135 Chinese maritime militia vessels had appeared near the disputed Whitsun Reef, which China calls the Niu'e Reef, in the South China Sea. The reef is located about 320 kilometers west of Palawan Island and about 1,000 kilometers from China's Hainan Island.

The Philippine Coast Guard said it counted 111 "Chinese maritime militia vessels'" on November 13. Two Philippine patrol boats sent to the area on December 2 found that the number of Chinese vessels had exceeded 135.

Other disputed areas between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea include Scarborough Shoal (called Huangyan Island in Chinese), the Second Thomas Shoal (Ren 'ai Reef), and Reed Bank.

The renewed escalation of maritime disputes between China and the Philippines comes after Philippine President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr. came to power in 2022. After Marcos Jr. took office as president, he changed the pro-China posture of former President Rodrigo Duterte and sought to establish closer bilateral relations with the United States, and gave the U.S. access to more Philippine military bases, which led to the worsening of relations between China and the Philippines.[1]

The Philippines is a former American colony, geographically close to China and even closer to Taiwan, a Catholic country whose economic and political lifeblood is dominated by a large and influential ethnic Chinese population. All of these have determined the great uncertainty of the Philippines-China relations, and are also the source of the variables in the Philippines' relations with the United States and China.

(Source: Global Times)

Reasons For The Change In China-Philippines Relations

The reasons for the change in China-Philippines relations in recent years can be summarized as follows:

Beijing Cannot Elimate U.S. Influence Over The Philippines

The improvement in relations between Beijing and Manila in the six years leading up to June 2022 was a lucky win for Beijing that used Chinese Filipinos to campaign heavily for Rodrigo Duterte, who has Chinese ancestry, helping him to become president of the Philippines.

In return, after Duterte took office, he began to distance himself from the United States and favor Beijing, basically giving up on safeguarding the Philippines' territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea.

But the U.S.-Philippines alliance is a cornerstone of Philippine foreign policy that Beijing cannot replace. The Philippines, a former Spanish colony, gained independence in 1946 after decades of U.S. colonial rule following the Spanish-American War and still has a deep and special relationship with the United States, including close political and business ties. Such a strong American influence in the Philippines is far beyond Beijing's reach.[2]

China-Philippines Relations Are Closely Related To China-U.S. Relations

The core of China's diplomacy is its diplomacy with the United States. Although Chinese leader Xi Jinping wanted to break this state since he took office, he still had to bow down under the all-round containment and suppression of presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden. Xi's visit to San Francisco in November 2023 was a clear signal of reconciliation with the United States.[3]

Under such circumstances, the United States' strong support for the Philippines and the Philippine political judgment on Sino-U.S. relations will naturally change in favor of the United States.

Xi's Holistic Approach To National Security

In recent years, Xi has been stressing the need to build a so-called grand holistic national security architecture. One important manifestation of this is the aggressive approach to the sovereignty issue in the South China Sea. On November 29, Xi visited the East China Sea Command of the Armed Police Coast Guard Corps and stressed the need to improve maritime rights protection and law enforcement capabilities. "We must effectively protect our rights and enforce our laws, and resolutely defend our territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests," he said.

This is clearly aimed at the recent maritime dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

Whether it is the maritime territorial disputes with the Philippines and other countries around the South China Sea, or the Taiwan issue, Xi is obsessed with achieving political goals, which are the source of his ruling legitimacy. However, he knows also how to compromise, when circumstances force him to. His sudden and complete relaxation of the COVID-19 policies in China a year ago and his humble handshake with Biden in the United States last month are examples of his compromises.[4]

Nine U.S. Military Bases In The Philippines

For nearly three years before 2023, Xi's draconian and stubborn COVID-19 policies, city lockdowns, and state closures have caused the Chinese economy to lose momentum. The "troika" of investment, export, and consumption that is driving the Chinese economy faces serious problems. This year's economic development and fiscal revenue and expenditure are a mess, and the Chinese domestic economy has plummeted. Business owners and investors at home and abroad have basically lost confidence in China under Xi's rule, and China's economic strength has been seriously damaged and its appeal and influence on Southeast Asian countries have been greatly weakened.

As China's relations with the United States and the European Union have continued to deteriorate over the past few years, ASEAN, including the Philippines, has overtaken the European Union and the United States to become China's largest trading partner. Eager to stabilize the broader economy, Xi has to maintain good relations with ASEAN, its largest trading partner, and ASEAN countries, including the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, are involved in maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea. This has forced Xi Jinping to moderate his hardline attitude toward the South China Sea issue.

It is precisely for this reason that the Philippines has once again turned to the United States and begun to challenge China on the issue of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

Hence, Beijing will do its best to keep the confrontation with the Philippines generally under control. At the same time, although Washington supports the Philippines on the South China Sea issue, it will not allow the situation to continue to deteriorate in the foreseeable future, but wants to maintain a low-intensity confrontation between China and the Philippines, and support the Philippines to consume China's military and maritime law enforcement resources. The U.S. will not have a direct showdown with China over the Philippines.

At the same time, the United States can now use its nine military bases in the Philippines, especially those in Luzon, which are very close to Taiwan and the South China Sea, to counter the Chinese authorities' military pressure on Taiwan. The Camilo Osias naval base used by the U.S. military is only about 400 kilometers from the main island of Taiwan.[5]


In view of the serious situation facing China, Xi needs to concentrate on domestic affairs, especially economic issues. At the same time, the possibility of a military solution to the Taiwan issue remains, even if Xi said in San Francisco that he had not heard of a military solution to Taiwan in 2027 or 2035. This statement is his consistent trick of strategic deception – he also promised Obama in 2015 that he would not militarize the South China Sea.[6]

As a result, in the short term, Beijing will tread carefully in its naval skirmishes with the Philippines in order to deal with more important challenges, and the likelihood of a serious escalation is relatively low.

*Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project.


[1], December 4, 2016;;


[3] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 544, The Hongqi Arrives In America, November 20, 2023.


[5], February 3, 2023;, May 4, 2023.

[6], November 18, 2023.

Share this Report: