Longview: The Philippines Needs a Recalibrated South China Sea Strategy

By Don McLain Gill & Nadia Dohadwala

Philippine officials recently reported that around 220 Chinese vessels had been anchored at the Whitsun Reef, or the Julian Felipe Reef as Manila calls it, in the South China Sea since March 7. Manila believes that these vessels are manned by militia. The reef is about 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of Bataraza town in the western Philippine province of Palawan. Philippine officials further stated that the reef is well within the country’s internationally recognized Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Philippines “enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources”.

How will the next series of events play out given the continuous coercive and unilateral actions China has been applying in the heavily disputed South China Sea?

The ball is now in the Philippines’ court. How will the next series of events play out given the continuous coercive and unilateral actions China has been applying in the heavily disputed South China Sea? The Philippine government, under President Duterte, has tried to be accommodating towards China; however, no material gains have resulted from these gestures. Instead, China seems to be taking advantage of the administration’s leniency. The Philippines must continue to remain consistent and committed to its sovereign rights by utilizing international instruments and supporting like-minded states to pressure Beijing, despite the apparent asymmetry in material capabilities.

In an initial response, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said, “We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory. We are committed to upholding our sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea.” Accordingly, the Philippine military has ordered more navy ships to be deployed for “sovereignty patrols” in the South China Sea, where a Chinese flotilla has swarmed around a disputed reef and ignored Manila’s demand to leave the area. Though this may not be the first incidence regarding Chinese incursion in Philippine territory in the South China Sea, the sheer number of vessels involved makes this event very alarming. Greg Poling, of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said that more Chinese fishing and militia vessels had recently visited Whitsun Reef at the northeastern edge of Union Banks, where China has two bases, and Vietnam has four bases. According to Poling, “This deployment at Whitsun Reef is not new, but the numbers are way up.” In line with this, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang on Thursday said the Chinese vessels at the reef – which Hanoi calls Da Ba Dau – had compromised on its sovereignty and national interests. “Vietnam requests that China stop this violation and respect Vietnam’s sovereignty,” Hang told a regular briefing. 

With the issue gaining momentum, the Chinese Embassy in Manila discarded the situation by saying they were fishing vessels taking shelter from rough seas. However, the United States Embassy emphasized that the Chinese boats had been mooring in the area for many months in increasing numbers, regardless of the weather. The US Embassy also accused China of using “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region”. In a separate statement, the US said that “We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia.”

In a Congress hearing to confirm new envoys on March 24, foreign affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said that “Although we might not have at the moment the means to give [Beijing a] bloody nose, we do have a Mutual Defense Treaty,” Locsin said. The treaty highlights that Manila and Washington will come to each other’s assistance if either is attacked. Manila claims that the boats belong to a Beijing-backed militia – known as the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, and sometimes referred to as Beijing’s “little blue men” – that China uses to seize maritime territory on an unofficial, deniable basis. In 2016, Chinese coastguard vessels prevented Filipino boats from fishing around the hotly contested Scarborough Shoal, which both countries claim. The issue continues to gain international attention – On March 25, Canada joined other countries, including the US, Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom in calling out China for its recent incursions in the West Philippine Sea, saying that China’s actions “undermine regional stability.” In a tweet, Canadian Ambassador to the Philippines Peter MacArthur said, “Canada opposes recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea, including off the coast of the Philippines, that escalate tensions and undermine regional stability and the rules-based international order.” 

China’s maritime assertiveness and unilateral actions have put President Duterte in an awkward position due to Beijing’s continuous embrace and unwillingness to speak out against it

China’s maritime assertiveness and unilateral actions have put President Duterte in an awkward position due to Beijing’s continuous embrace and unwillingness to speak out against it. Instead, he has often accused ally the US of creating conflict in the South China Sea. However, as the issues unfold, it is clear who the real aggressor in the South China Sea is. To soften the tone, Harry Roque, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson, stated that “[The president] will talk with the Chinese ambassador about this issue, and he said there is nothing that cannot be discussed among friends.” 

Does having military aircraft surveying the region suggest some semblance of military pressure from the Philippines?

Interestingly, during his meeting with Chinese ambassador Huang Xilian, President Duterte asserted the international court’s 2016 arbitral ruling favoring the Philippines against China’s expansive claims in the disputed South China Sea. This is surely a step in the right direction; however, what needs to be emphasized is the consistency and commitment towards safeguarding the Philippines ‘ national interest. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has said that light fighter aircraft are being sent daily to monitor Whitsun Reef’s situation. Does having military aircraft surveying the region suggest some semblance of military pressure from the Philippines? With the palace’s ambiguous positions, the defense establishment, and the foreign affairs establishment, the Philippines is paving an arduous path towards establishing a united and formidable strategy and policy for the South China Sea. 

The Editors: Don McLain Gill & Nadia Dohadwala

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.

Nadia Dohadwala is a final year International Development undergraduate at King’s College London. She has gained significant experience working at strategic advisory firms such as Centennial Asia Advisors and research institutes like the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore. She is currently a Research Analyst for London Politica and a Working Group Member of the Global Health Policy Centre at King’s Think Tank. 

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