Is a Gulf of Tonkin-type incident brewing in the South China Sea?

Jun 1, 2023
Spratly Island detailed editable map with cities and towns. Second Thomas Shoal.

The situation in the South China Sea is on the verge of becoming a game of chicken between the U.S. and China with the Philippines in the middle. This would be very dangerous and could cause China to miscalculate. Either one blinks or they clash.

More than 60 years ago, the U.S. claimed that on 4 August 1964, North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the US naval destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. This incident led to the 10 August 1964 US Congress Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that became then President Lyndon Johnson’s legal justification for deploying US forces to South Vietnam. In other words it led to the beginning of what would become the open involvement of the U.S. in Vietnam’s civil war. We now know that attack never happened and the fateful decisions were based on naval intelligence that was shaped to fit Johnson’s political needs and preferences. He was looking for an excuse to take the country to war without a formal declaration by Congress. That was then. This is now. But history has a way of repeating itself, especially if relevant lessons go unlearned. Could recent developments be setting the stage for a similar excuse for the U.S. military to enter someone else’s conflict– this time between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea? Such an incident could –like before– suck in US allies Australia and South Korea into a wider fray.

A version of this scenario could develop at Second Thomas Shoal where Chinese coast guard vessels recently blocked a Philippine coast guard vessel approaching the shoal supposedly for a ‘site survey”. According to an international arbitration panel established under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the submerged shoal is part of the Philippines continental shelf and is within its Exclusive Economic Zone. The Philippines therefore has exclusive sovereign rights to its resources. Technically no country can claim sovereignty over a submerged feature. Nevertheless, the Philippines sees it as a sovereignty issue. China also claims it as part of its historic claim to much of the South China Sea that was rejected by the same panel. Thus this dispute is rife with nationalism, and inaction could threaten the legitimacy of the ruling governments.

The blame for the recent near collision there between the two nations’ coast guard vessels is not as black and white as most Western media would have it. China said the incident was a premeditated provocation by Manila. Yes, the resources belong to the Philippines and the Chinese vessel violated international convention by blocking the path of the Philippine coastguard vessel.

But the Philippines may have been trying to provoke the incident. The vessels had broadcast their intention to enter Ayungin Shoal and warned the Chinese vessels to ”stay clear from our passage”. It knew from previous experience that China would react aggressively to its demonstration of its ‘ownership’. But it wanted to instigate a Chinese response for the group of international journalists that it had conveniently invited along on its ”sovereignty patrol” as part of its campaign to publicise China’s depredations against it.

There were two Philippine coast guard vessels. It is curious that the confrontation was between the Chinese vessel and the Philippine vessel that was not carrying the journalists so they could observe without being in immediate danger themselves. The journalists duly sensationalised the incident far and wide.

But what does this have to do with the U.S.? It and the Philippines have a Mutual Defence Treaty that requires each to formally consider coming to the military assistance of the other if it is attacked. While having prevaricated on the meaning of ‘attack’ in previous incidents, the US State Department has now laid down a challenge to China. “The United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order and reaffirms that an armed attack in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea, on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft, including those of the Coast Guard, would invoke US mutual defence commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty.” Further, the Commander of the US Pacific Fleet Admiral Samuel Paparo said the U.S. is prepared to assist the Philippines if China interferes with Manila’s efforts to resupply its forces on its grounded naval ship on the Shoal.

The U.S. has been issuing more general warnings to China regarding such actions for some time. But each incident including the shining of a laser at the bridge of a Philippine coastguard vessel has apparently been below the US interpretation of the threshold to activate the MDT. Moreover there is wiggle room in the requirements for assistance. MDT Article IV states that “an [armed] attack on either party will be acted upon in accordance with their constitutional processes and that any armed attack on either party will be brought to the attention of the United Nations for immediate action. Once the United Nations has issued such orders, all hostile actions between the signatories of this treaty and opposing parties will be terminated.” So the decision making process could be drawn out and military assistance is not guaranteed.

But the U.S. has seemingly upped the ante. It is now planning joint patrols this year that are being requested by the Philippines. The first may well be near Second Thomas Shoal.

Now the U.S. has generated public pressure on itself to make good on its threat. Otherwise it will lose credibility and be considered a toothless tiger–all growl no bite. This would be very dangerous and could cause China to miscalculate. The situation is on the verge of becoming a game of chicken between the U.S. and China with the Philippines in the middle and perhaps even a facilitator. Indeed, it could provoke China to attack its vessels. Either one blinks or they clash. To try to contain the conflict, the U.S. will likely use a coast guard vessel for any joint patrol—not its navy. That like China’s will be lurking over the horizon. Whether the clash intensifies and spreads depends on the wisdom of the leaders. Actually I am optimistic that one or both will back off. But given the anti-China mood in Washington, a Gulf of Tonkin- like incident –real or manufactured- may push Congress to demand military action. Hold onto your hat.


An edited version appeared in the South China Morning Post May 31, 2023

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