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China-Philippines ties on ‘brink of total breakdown’: unpacking the collapse

Fast forward 16 years and those 80 support pillars are now gone, torn down after the ambitious Northrail scheme was abandoned amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement. Yet 200km to the northwest, a new structure is taking shape – one with very different intentions.

What began as a story of infrastructure cooperation has morphed into an epic tale of betrayal and confrontation, the once-chummy relationship between Manila and Beijing giving way to escalating geopolitical rivalry. The rise and fall of those Northrail pillars now bookend a new, more ominous chapter.

“I think relations are the worst in recent memory because the hostility and aggression of China at both the strategic and tactical levels are palpable,” former senator and retired naval officer Antonio Trilllanes told This Week in Asia.

Indeed, ties are “at their lowest ebb and on the brink of total breakdown”, according to Teresita Ang-See, founder of Kaisa, an organisation representing Chinese-Filipinos that aims to foster understanding and tolerance between cultures.

“Never have the churning waters reached boiling point as now,” she said.

Chinese coastguard personnel wielding axes and machetes then boarded the Philippine boats, trashing equipment, seizing phones and firearms, and towing the vessels away – a shocking escalation in the bitter territorial dispute over the strategic waterway.


Chinese and Philippine ships clash in first incident under Beijing’s new coast guard law

The Philippine military was quick to condemn China’s “barbaric actions” in a post on the X social media platform.

As the two sides trade accusations, the risk of further miscalculation and escalation remains ever-present in the strategic waterway.

But this latest incident marked a