Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute
On March 7, 2021, around 220 vessels flying the Chinese flag were spotted along the Julian Felipe Reef, a shallow coral reef located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan. Based on data from geospatial satellite images from the South China Sea Rapid Alert Platform of Simularity, these Chinese ships have been present in the area since Dec. 14, 2020, actively entering and departing, and anchored in a lined-up, moored formation.
Despite the filing of diplomatic protests and formal communications with the Chinese Embassy in Manila, these Chinese maritime militia vessels have maintained their presence in the area and even spread out to different areas within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. This incident has become a serious concern at the national and global levels. Disregarding the 2016 arbitral ruling, China has become more aggressive with its rhetoric, most notably the bold statements and responses of the Chinese Embassy against Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
The Department of National Defense led by Lorenzana, along with the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, the Philippine Navy, the Philippine Coast Guard, and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, continue to be vocal about these incursions and the risks they pose to national security. In a statement, Lorenzana described these incursions as a “clear provocative action of militarizing the area.” He has repeatedly called for the immediate withdrawal of the vessels and reiterated DND’s mandate to protect the country’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity. In an effort to increase the presence of the Philippine Navy in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), AFP Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana has also ordered the deployment of a Philippine Navy Corvette to conduct sovereignty patrols in the area.
While previous incursions involving Chinese vessels clearly demonstrate a continuing security threat, Beijing’s passage of a new law explicitly allowing the Chinese coast guard to fire on foreign vessels in waters it claims, as well as the amendment to China’s national defense law, are more reasons for serious concern. While these legislative measures are inherently within its rights, misinterpretation and risks arise when they are viewed through China’s geopolitical interests and aggressive posturing in the South China Sea (SCS).
Looking at previous confrontations and issues in both the SCS and the East China Sea, China has consistently stayed within the gray area of international norms and policies to shape the outcome based on its best interest. Beijing has massively deployed nonconfrontational coast guard and fishing vessels to increase its presence and deny access to areas in the SCS, while simultaneously circumventing the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It has leveraged economic interdependence, humanitarian efforts, and international participation as a diversion from the threats posed by its actions and as a tool to advance its political agenda.
The Philippines, however, is not alone in its fight to uphold a rules-based maritime order in the region. Like-minded states with shared democratic values have expressed the same concern over China’s actions in the WPS.
In the fight to secure the WPS, the Philippine government must stop downplaying China’s expansionist agenda and must remain steadfast in reasserting the country’s sovereignty. The Philippines must leverage and strategize, through minilateral and multilateral alliances, a joint patrol mechanism to defend its territorial integrity and contribute to the international effort to maintain freedom of the seas. This moment of heightened tensions could also be an opportunity to revisit the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US. The Philippines has strong allies to confront the China challenge to its national security; it must build on these relations to protect its sovereignty and interests.
This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Image Source: Armed Forces of the Philippines.