A warning from the 20th century is that dictatorships tend to use aggression not first against great powers but against smaller states. Hitler pressured Austria and seized the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia before seizing the rest of the Czech Republic, turning Slovakia into a protectorate, and seizing Memel (Klaipeda) from Lithuania. After checking Japan in 1938 and 1939 in the Far East, Stalin aggressed against Poland with his ally Nazi Germany before turning to invade Finland, the Baltic states, and the Romanian territory of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. Mao invaded Tibet as he was preparing to intervene in the Korean War.
That important lesson permits us to see the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) aggression against the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, in an alarming light. The PRC has adopted a sustained coercive campaign against the Philippines to seize its sovereign territory. The world is witnessing this aggression today in the South China Sea. Over the past three decades, the PRC has used brute force to assert their “territorial” claim over the South China Sea, a sea area 30% larger than the Mediterranean Sea, where some $5 trillion worth of goods transit each year.
The campaign of aggression against the Philippines started in 1995, when the PRC seized Mischief Reef. It has continued since, but 2023 has been a culminating year. On August 5, Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) ships, the size of a U.S. Navy destroyer with reinforced hulls for ramming, obstructed the Republic of the Philippine’s resupply mission to their outpost aboard the ex-U.S. Navy WWII-era ship, the Sierra Madre, at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. The ship was purposefully run aground in 1999 as it was the only option the Philippines had to defend their sovereign territory that lies well within Manila’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). It is important to recall that in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled the PRC has no lawful claim to the South China Sea, to include Second Thomas Shoal.
Since then, Beijing has scoffed at the court’s ruling as a “farce” and flaunted its defiance of the ruling through deeds, including what the China Coast Guard (CCG) cutters did using water cannons to drive away the Philippine navy from conducting what is a humanitarian mission for the sailors and marines aboard the Sierra Madre. The PRC has continually called upon the Philippines to remove the ship, hindered resupply missions to the vessel, and even threatened to seize it. For their part, the new Chief of Staff of the Philippine Armed Forces, General Romeo Brawner, labeled the attack an “act of war.”
The record of the PRC’s duplicity and aggressiveness in the South China Sea is well established, but what makes this recent event at Second Thomas Shoal different this time is that Beijing is now able to assert direct military force to seize territory by force. This is because the PRC was able to build seven installations in the Spratly Islands starting in 2013, three of which are the size of Pearl Harbor and equipped with 10,000-foot runways and pier space to equip all the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) aircraft carriers. The PRC’s rhetoric is becoming more belligerent and more frequent. In the last week of December, Wu Qian, a spokesperson for the PRC’s Ministry of Defense, said that “China will not turn a blind eye to the Philippine’s repeated provocations and harassment” while calling upon the U.S. to stop its meddling in the issue.
In fact, that is the last thing the U.S. needs to do. Far greater U.S. involvement is necessary. The U.S. response has been far from ideal to reassure Manilla, one of America’s oldest allies. The four Filipino bases announced for use by the U.S. on April 3, two in Cagayan and one each in Isabela and Palawan, are important steps forward. But they are insufficient given the immediacy of the threat from Beijing.
Three more major steps are necessary. First, the U.S. needs to recognize that the defense of the Philippines is linked to the defense of Taiwan. Taiwan occupies key geopolitical real estate, as Beijing and Washington recognize. For the PRC, it is a cork in the bottle of the first island chain and prevents the PLAN from easily accessing the Pacific, from defending the PRC’s ports from mining, and from sustaining the Sea Line of Communication from the East and South China Seas. Bases in Taiwan and the Philippines can serve as important deterrents to the PRC’s aggression, and should deterrence fail, each has a role to play in reinforcing the other.
Second, working with its Filipino ally and perhaps other allies like Australia and Japan, the U.S. needs to conduct the maritime equivalent of the Berlin Airlift to ensure that regular supplies flow to the Filipino presence on Second Thomas Shoal and the PRC’s coercive attempts fail as Stalin’s did in 1948–1949. This time, though, given the geography, the airlift must be a sealift, something that highlights the deficiencies of the U.S. maritime shipbuilding industry.
Third, successfully breaking the back of the PRC’s coercive attempts at Second Thomas Shoal would be the first stage of a rollback campaign headed by the U.S. but including the Philippines and partners to apply countervailing pressure on Beijing and work with its allies to enforce international law in the South China Sea as expressed in the 2016 PCA decision. So far, Beijing has gotten away with aggression in the South China Sea with no repercussions. This must change.
The PRC’s small and measured, aka “salami slicing,” aggression is becoming a torrent that the U.S. and its allies and partners must stop now.
James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy, and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is a Founding Member of the Committee on Present Danger China and the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.