From hot air to hot war over Second Thomas Shoal?

A guest piece by Collin Koh, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

China’s recent water cannon use against a Filipino resupply mission in Second Thomas Shoal was hardly new; China did the same thing back in 2021.

This time around, Manila succeeded in getting supplies through to its outpost, with American help in the form of aerial assets circling above. But this US assistance wasn’t new either; it helped Manila breach a similar blockade back in 2014.

So the specific actions in the South China Sea (SCS) might not have changed, but the context has changed. Manila’s Marcos Jr. administration, backed by strong domestic support, is keen to challenge China’s stranglehold on its SCS interests.

As for Beijing, it’s possible it was seeking to protest the deepening Philippine-U.S. defence ties, and perhaps distract domestic attention from its post-pandemic economic woes.

But China’s decision to again stick with the non-lethal water cannon shouldn’t allow any illusion of sort. If anything, the incident demonstrates China’s staying power in the SCS.

Beijing understands it can play the long game: it has over the years established a growing physical presence in the SCS, further widening its power asymmetry in the region. In parallel, it’s maintained a narrative that outsiders like the Americans are the real troublemakers.

In this context, it’s hard to imagine China firing the opening shots of armed hostilities in the SCS right now, especially given its reinvigorated negotiations over a regional Code of Conduct in the SCS. Rather, China still prefers grey zone actions (like the water cannon) to provoke its rivals into firing the first shot, enabling China to preserve that moral high ground.

So the posturing and counter-posturing between China and its SCS rivals will continue unabated, and the situation will remain tenuous. But a hot war seems unlikely for now.

Intrigue’s take: Collin is a deep thinker on naval affairs in the Indo-Pacific, and we’re chuffed he shared his perspectives with us. For more insights on the South China Sea and beyond, be sure to follow Collin’s work on Twitter/X.