Watching Closely: As Chinese vessels disperse, the Philippines must be more cautious

There were approximately 220 Chinese vessels anchored at Whitsun Reef in March, or the Julian Felipe Reef as Manila calls it. The Philippines declared that these Chinese vessels at the reef were crewed by “maritime militia” that intended to demonstrate and secure China’s illegal historical claim. “The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea,” said Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana

In a previous article, Nadia Dohadwala and I noted that the next series of events would determine the Philippines’ fate depending on how the country will engage based on the situation. Fortunately, in mid-April, the Chinese vessels began dispersing. According to Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr., only a handful of Chinese militia vessels remained at Whitsun Reef as of April 13.

However, it is not clear whether China may again seize the reef in more significant numbers or even redirect its focus to another geographical zone in the disputed territory

However, it is not clear whether China may again seize the reef in more significant numbers or even redirect its focus to another geographical zone in the disputed territory. However, what must be highlighted is that by engaging proactively with the United States (U.S.), the Philippines was able to even the odds for the time being and stand stand-up against China’s efforts to assert its dominance over the reef.  The U.S. State Department was quick to reassure the Philippines, stating that “the U.S. stands with our ally, the Philippines, regarding concerns about the gathering of PRC maritime militia vessels near Whitsun Reef. We call on Beijing to stop using its maritime militia to intimidate and provoke others, undermining peace and security.” In fact, as the Chinese militia fleet around Whitsun Reef reached its maximum number last month, the U.S. fleet began concentrating its ships that were already underway in the western Pacific. The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the assault ship USS Makin Island joined up in early April, which combined with their air wings and their escorting cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. The Philippines also deployed extra vessels to patrol the South China Sea. In addition, the USS Mustin was sent near the mouth of the Yangtze River on April 3 and has been following China’s Liaoning group through the East and South China Seas. On top of these developments, the U.S. State Department emphasized that, “An armed attack against the Philippines armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the mutual defense treaty.” 

To tone down the highly complex and competitive atmosphere, Palace Spokesman Harry Roque said that, “We will continue to resolve the issues on Julian Felipe through diplomatic channels and through peaceful means.” Roque further expressed his optimism towards President Duterte’s efforts to privately handle the situation with China. He reminded that “Kung ano man ang ginagawa ng Presidente, hayaan nating gawin niya iyon sa isang pribadong pamamaraan dahil hindi naman po dapat inaanunsyo sa publiko ang mga diplomatic initiatives o hakbang na ginagawa ng Pangulo (Whatever the President is doing, let us allow him to do it in a private manner because diplomatic initiatives and efforts the President is doing need not be announced).” Moreover, Roque continued to bank on the hope that the strong friendship between the Philippines and China will allow a peaceful resolution to the issue.

However, China seems to maintain its realpolitik perspective concerning the reef and its expansive claims in the South China Sea

However, China seems to maintain its realpolitik perspective concerning the reef and its expansive claims in the South China Sea. China’s Foreign Ministry said that the reef was Chinese territory and that the 2016 tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines over contested the South China Sea features was “illegal, null and void.” Moreover, the Philippines should “immediately stop wanton hype-up.” This goes to show that Philippines-China relations go beyond the notion of friendship and camaraderie. Instead, the bilateral relationship continues to enter much turbulence given China’s increasing assertion in the region. Thus, the Philippines must try to refrain from downplaying China’s provocative actions. 

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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