MANILA — China’s most daring adversary in Southeast Asia is, by many measurements, ill-suited for a fight. The Philippines has a military budget one-fortieth the size of Beijing’s, and its navy cruises through contested waters in 1970s hand-me-downs from the South Vietnamese.
From that short-handed position, the Philippines has set off on a risky mission to do what no nation in the region has managed to do: thwart China in its drive to control the vast waters around it.
The Philippines doesn’t view China exclusively as a threat, officials here say, noting that trade between the countries is growing. The Philippines has also used caution at times, most notably by holding off on provocative plans to drill in what could be the nation’s richest oil and gas field. But analysts point to a series of steps taken in recent months that suggest that Manila is increasingly willing to confront Beijing. They also note that the Philippines has suspended or canceled several development deals that depended on generous Chinese aid.
Earlier this year, the Philippines filed a case with the United Nations contesting China’s maritime claims. More recently, the Philippines has increased its manpower on disputed islands, approved upgrades to decrepit military equipment and discussed plans that would give the United States expanded access to Philippine air and naval bases. Speaking to his armed forces in May, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the nation needed to protect its maritime territory from “bullies.”
Battles over territory in Asia go back centuries, but China has made an increasingly aggressive play in recent years to recover land that it says fell wrongly into foreign hands. China has made a case for ownership of nearly the entire South China Sea, marking its territory with a nine-dash line on a map that it submitted to the United Nations in 2009.
At least four other neighbors — Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam — are skirmishing with China over the tiny islands and the waters within that boundary. They covet sovereignty not just as a matter of pride but also to claim rich fisheries and underwater oil and gas resources.
But they have reason to tread cautiously. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner. Brunei depends on China as a market for its fossil fuel exports. Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, has fostered a major improvement in relations with Beijing.
Comparatively, Vietnam has been more willing to anger China. The two nations have a legacy of centuries of animosity, including a brief border war in 1979 and more recent clashes at sea. But the two are also communist partners, capable of patching up frayed ties.
Some Filipinos say their country is more suited than others in the region to play tough with China. The Philippines has deep ties to Washington, stemming from a U.S. colonial period that ended in 1946. China and the Philippines took opposite sides in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in the Cold War.