Could World War III start in the Philippines?

 Photo composite of Xi Jinping, a map of the South China Sea and a naval warship.
Credit: Illustration by Stephen Kelly / Getty Images

Tensions are rising in the South China Sea again. Recent videos from the Philippine military showed "Chinese Coast Guard personnel ramming and boarding Philippine naval boats and confiscating their weapons," said Deutsche Welle. It's the latest in a series of frequent clashes between the two countries that observers worry could eventually spark a larger conflict involving the United States. "The risk of an accident that escalates to conflict is high," said Bonnie Glaser of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

There's a risk that China and the United States — which has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines — are "sleepwalking toward World War III" in the region, the Global Policy Institute's Bob Savic said in the Asia Times. China recently announced it would arrest foreign nationals in disputed waters it claims as its own; Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., meanwhile, has said he would treat the death of any of his countrymen in the encounters as an "act of war." It's easy to see how things could get out of hand, even with diplomats on both sides working to prevent escalation. "A peaceful outcome should not be taken for granted."

What did the commentators say?

"The odds of armed conflict in the South China Sea are high and rising," Derek Grossman said at Foreign Policy. China's increasingly aggressive actions have put the "Philippines in an ever-tightening stranglehold that is increasingly compromising the latter's sovereignty and territorial integrity at sea." However, neither the Philippines nor the United States seems sure how to respond. One possibility is treating "gray zone" attacks on Filipino ships — involving water cannons, lasers and boat-ramming but no weaponry — as "armed attacks" that would bring direct American intervention. The point is not to start a war but to "reestablish deterrence and lessen the risk of war in the years to come."

"The U.S. and the Philippines need to further adapt their century-old alliance to meet current threats," Richard Heydarian said at Nikkei Asia. American leaders might consider "having U.S. drones or navy frigates shadow Philippine supply convoys" to signal their commitment "without getting directly involved." The U.S. could also furnish some of its own decommissioned craft to the Philippines to boost that country's capabilities. Bottom line: "The U.S. must back up its own lofty rhetoric in support of Manila with concrete support for its besieged treaty ally."

What next?

"We are not in the business to instigate wars," Marcos said after the most recent incident, according to The Associated Press. But he added that his country would not back down from "any foreign power." The United States has also reaffirmed its support of the Philippines, asserting that China's "dangerous actions threatened regional peace and stability," said NBC News.

One bright sign? "Washington and Beijing are talking more regularly to avoid a conflict in the South China Sea," said the BBC. Observers seem to agree on two things: The rising tensions could get out of hand — and nobody actually wants that. "Our militaries are operating in very close proximity to one another in the South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait," said Nicholas Burns, the American ambassador to China. "You don't want to send the wrong signal."