Longview: The Philippines and China are Entering Turbulent Times as Tensions Escalate in the West Philippine Sea

On May 29, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that it filed a new diplomatic protest on May 28 due to China’s “incessant deployment, prolonged presence, and illegal activities” of maritime assets and vessels in the vicinity of the Pag-asa Island. Moreover, the DFA strongly demanded the withdrawal of Chinese ships in the area, considering that Pag-asa “is an integral part of the Philippines over which it has sovereignty and jurisdiction.” Pag-asa – internationally known as Thitu Island – lies around 480 kilometers west of Puerto Princesa City, Palawan. It is the largest of what the Philippines calls the Kalayaan Island Group, a chain of nine islets it claims as territory among the greater group internationally known as the Spratlys. 

This protest comes roughly more than 2 months since 220 Chinese vessels had been anchored at the Julian Felipe Reef in the South China Sea

This protest comes roughly more than 2 months since 220 Chinese vessels had been anchored at the Julian Felipe Reef in the South China Sea. In my previous article, I argued that the gradual dispersion of Chinese vessels from the said reef might mean that it is merely consolidating a new strategy to reposition its maritime force in another critical location in the West Philippine Sea. This is the latest in the series of protests by the Philippines towards China over the continued presence of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea. Ivy Banzon-Abalos, executive director of the DFA’s office of strategic communication and research, said that the Philippines has filed 99 protest notes as of May 28. This consists of the daily protests the DFA “vowed to file every day as long as Chinese vessels remain in Julian Felipe Reef,” Abalos said

China’s maritime expansion and assertion are quite expected given its adherence to realpolitik. In April, The Philippine coastguard and fisheries bureau started maritime exercises within the country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). However, as a response to these exercises, the Chinese Foreign Ministry emphasized that the Philippines must “stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes”. In response, the Philippine Department of National Defense clarified that “China has no business telling the Philippines what it can and cannot do.” This string of events signals a turbulent road ahead between Manila and Beijing in the West Philippine Sea despite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s reluctance to confront China. At the end of the day, systemic shifts in power distribution coupled with China’s ambitions to maximize power and alter the regional status quo in Asia will eventually push the Philippines to take a more proactive stand against its larger and more powerful neighbor.

As part of these proactive measures, the Philippines has significantly ramped up its patrols in the South China Sea recently. According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), 13 law enforcement or military vessels from the Philippines visited waters around the contested Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal at least 57 times between March 1 to May 25. The report highlighted that “This was a substantial increase over the previous 10 months … when 3 vessels were tracked making 7 total visits to contested features.” In addition to increasing maritime patrols, General Cirilito Sobejana, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, announced last month that the government was planning to set up a logistics hub at Pag-asa Island. “If we transform it into a logistics hub, our boats will [go] further and our sovereignty patrol in West Philippine Sea will continue,” he said. Moreover, he added that “We are patrolling where our fishermen are going as well as where the Chinese ships are staying to make sure that our countrymen will not be threatened or intimidated.” 

The Philippines must not allow itself to be pushed to compromise on issues that are integral to its sovereignty. It is in the best interest of the Philippines to maintain positive and cordial relations with its neighbors

These measures taken by the Philippines will not hold well for China’s strategic designs. However, the Philippines must continue to enhance its capacity to protect its legitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea. Standing up to China does not mean that war must or will break out. Channels of communication, trade relations, and socio-cultural exchanges should persist as a confidence-building measure. However, the Philippines must not allow itself to be pushed to compromise on issues that are integral to its sovereignty. It is in the best interest of the Philippines to maintain positive and cordial relations with its neighbors, including China. As a result, clear signals must be sent by Manila to avoid strategic miscalculations. Furthermore, while recognizing the clear power asymmetry between the Philippines and China, Manila must also continue to utilize legal instruments such as the Arbitration Ruling and forge robust partnerships with like-minded countries to enhance its overall capabilities to uphold the rule of law and preserve its national interest.

The Editor: Don McLain Gill

Don McLain Gill is an international affairs researcher and author based in the Philippines. He is a Fellow at the International Development and Security Cooperation (IDSC) and is currently completing his master’s in International Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He has written extensively on issues of regional geopolitics and Indian foreign policy.

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