Most Americans are not even aware of what is really going on the South China Sea, but China has been using its gray water fleet (militia fishing boats) to deter, thwart, claim, parts of the territorial waters belonging to the Philippines as theirs with impunity. These waters contain natural gas and oil deposits off the island of Palawan and China wants them. To make sure, they have built up many reef atolls expanding them into military ports and airfields protected by batteries of missiles that can take out a ship many miles away once detected.
At the Julian Felipe Reef or Whitsun Reef, over 200 Chinese ships were spotted in March. They simply were parked in and around it and if any non-Chinese ship or boat approached they were warned to turn around or face action. These are China's "gray water" fleet of militia government fishing trawlers, some quite large, poaching the fish and crabs normally caught by Philippine fisherman and trawlers. It is within an area known to belong to the Philippines.
China generally toys with the Philippine government because they know how powerless they are to force the Chinese boats away with military or coast guard vessels. It is the typical bully diplomacy China uses all the time. To appease them, China recently gave the nation free of charge, over 600,000 Chinese Covid-19 vaccines, that most Filipinos suspect (having to prefer the American vaccines that cost anywhere from $50-100 USD). President Duerte has cowtowed many times to China on many issues due to his personal dislike of the USA. However, most Filipinos prefer the USA and many of their Senators are now threatening China with the weapon.
The 1951 US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty has existed over 70 years and calls for the USA to come to the defense of the Philippines if attacked or threatened. This has been expanded to now include the South China Sea area including the territorial waters of it where China is violating everyday.
However, the Philippines must invoke it with a request to the US, which it has not yet done so but now have publicly stated it might if China does not remove all of the militia fishing boats. If requested, the USN would have to intervene. China has responded with a warning, that if the defense act is invoked, the Philippines will suffer grave consequences.
Things would become more explosive if this occurs and the US sends in naval and other military apparatus to defend Palawan or the other small island reefs. If invoked, the US could not just ignore it without breaking a treaty, which would be very bad politically.
As of now, the situation remains a face-off, but many in the Philippine government are fed up with China, despite Duerte's preference, and know the only way to deter a bully is with another with better motives. The US could intervene but only at the request of the Philippines.
perrya (author) on April 10, 2021:
Very good question because since the Philippines had been a major USN base at Subic until 1990 or so, the government there has been looking more towards China thanks to Duerte. But, given the Defense Pact, a carrier group deployed to defend PH would send a strong message to China about the gravity of the situation. Since both have stated neither will fire the first shot, a faceoff will prevail and PH waters will be defended. The PH military would surely welcome the USN back.
CHRIS57 from Northern Germany on April 10, 2021:
Questions to be asked: Is the detachment of any naval forces enough? Will it be sufficient to just send an aircraft carrier group? Eventually there will be real confrontantion, not just showing mere presence in international waters. Is the US still powerful enough to takes this avenue to the very end?
Chrish Canosa from Manila Philippines on April 09, 2021:
Thanks for opening this topic. I don't want to point my finger to any who, not even our president. One thing I'm sure of, if Philippines will happen to ask US for help nowadays in the current situation that will be a threat to many nations. I hope its only just a dream. Blessings to you...
MG Singh emge from Singapore on April 09, 2021:
This situation is created by President Duterte, by his own folly. He tried to move away from the US alliance and China latched on to that Achilles heel. Now he is in a fix and at a loss as to what to do. China generally tries to bully nations and the only thing they understand is military power. The moot point is whether Biden has the courage to confront China if requested by Philippines. I have a feeling he doesn't have the guts.