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Based on the official view from Beijing, the Philippines has no reason to worry about Chinese fishing boats sitting along a disputed reef in the South China Sea.

The vessels — initially numbering in the hundreds — were simply “taking shelter from the wind” and the Philippines should view the situation in a “rational light,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on March 22 when the news first broke.

Two weeks later, more than 40 boats are still at Whitsun Reef and the statements are getting more and more terse. The Philippine Foreign Affairs Department on Monday warned China it would issue daily diplomatic protests as long as the “maritime militia” remains in place, using the same language as the U.S. to describe the fleet stationed in an area known as Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines and Niu’e Jiao in China.

“If your goal is to take over a sea space and atoll without fighting for it, this is a brilliant if dishonest tactic,” said Carl Schuster, a former operations director at U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center. “Only professional seamen know it’s a lie — no one ‘shelters’ their ships in a storm area weeks ahead of a storm. If they truly are commercial craft, it is costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars a day having them sit idly lashed together.”

All in all, it’s beginning to look more and more like Beijing is probing whether President Joe Biden will take any action after pledging to work with allies in the region to deter Chinese assertiveness. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin has blamed the Obama administration for failing to stop China during a similar incident in 2012 at the Scarborough Shoal, a precursor to President Xi Jinping’s move to build military installations throughout the South China Sea.

“It is a test to see what the administration is willing to do,” said Schuster, who is now an adjunct faculty member of Hawaii Pacific University’s diplomacy and military science program. “How the U.S. reacts will determine the next test. Right now, everything we have done is more rhetorical than substantive.”

The U.S. last month said it stands by the Philippines while accusing China of using a “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke and threaten other nations.” Asked about Chinese relations at a press briefing last month, Biden said his administration was “going to hold China accountable to follow the rules” in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Chinese vessels anchored at Whitsun Reef, about 320 kilometers west of Palawan Island in the South China Sea, on March 27 | NATIONAL TASK FORCE-WEST PHILIPPINE SEA (NTF-WPS) / PHILIPPINE COMMUNICATIONS OPERATIONS OFFICE / VIA AFP-JIJI
Chinese vessels anchored at Whitsun Reef, about 320 kilometers west of Palawan Island in the South China Sea, on March 27 | NATIONAL TASK FORCE-WEST PHILIPPINE SEA (NTF-WPS) / PHILIPPINE COMMUNICATIONS OPERATIONS OFFICE / VIA AFP-JIJI

One big problem is how to calibrate the response. China’s use of commercial fishing boats amounts to a “gray zone” tactic that allows Beijing to deny anything is amiss. Sending an aircraft carrier or other warships near the reef risks appearing like an overreaction that would make the U.S. look like the aggressor.

On the other hand, doing nothing could look weak. Over the past few years the U.S. has stepped up challenges to Chinese sovereignty in the waters, increasing the frequency of so-called freedom of navigation operations around disputed territory. The Biden administration also reaffirmed that the U.S.-Philippine defense treaty covers any attacks in the South China Sea, a clarification made under President Donald Trump that came after decades of official ambiguity.

Another major complication for Biden is Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, who has undermined the alliance while hailing closer ties with Beijing.

“As long as President Duterte is in power there are very limited options for the Navy,” said Rommel Ong, a retired rear admiral in the Philippine Navy who is now a professor at Ateneo de Manila University’s School of Government. “Bereft of any coherent strategy it is limited to filing diplomatic protests and pronouncements against China’s through social media.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte addresses the Philippine Congress in Quezon City, Metro Manila, in July 2019. | REUTERS
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte addresses the Philippine Congress in Quezon City, Metro Manila, in July 2019. | REUTERS

The Philippine statement on Monday used some of the strongest language yet, saying a 2016 international arbitration award made clear China has no historic rights to fish in the area, which falls within the Southeast Asian country’s exclusive economic zone. It also denounced the Chinese Embassy for criticizing Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who has said the weather is fine and the boats have no reason to stay. “I am no fool,” he said over the weekend.

Duterte’s government was reacting to an April 3 statement by China saying the waters had been “a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years” and reiterating that it was “completely normal” for the vessels to “take shelter near the reef during rough sea conditions.” China has denied the boats constitute a maritime militia and said it hoped Philippine officials would “avoid any unprofessional remarks which may further fan irrational emotions.”

Duterte has so far personally stayed quiet, though his spokesman Harry Roque said his view of the situation hasn’t changed.

“The president’s stand is that we will stand by our rights, but this is not a reason to resort to violence,” Roque said. “He is confident that because of our close friendship with China, we will be able to resolve this.”

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media outside the White House on Monday. | EPA / VIA BLOOMBERG
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media outside the White House on Monday. | EPA / VIA BLOOMBERG

One factor restraining Duterte from a tougher stance may be the need to secure vaccines: Metro Manila was locked down again last week amid the nation’s worst coronavirus surge. The Philippines currently sources most of its vaccines from China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd., with Duterte attending a March 29 ceremony in which Chinese Ambassador Huang Zilian said the jabs were testament of a “closer partnership in the new era.”

The U.S. “isn’t so naive” this time around after its failed 2012 effort to strike a deal for a mutual withdrawal at the Scarborough Shoal “caused immense damage to U.S. credibility in Southeast Asia,” said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia.

“The Americans are wary of wading into this and not knowing if they’ll end up being blamed for escalating the situation, which is a real possibility with the capricious leadership in Manila,” he said. “A perfunctory response — that’s all that’s available to the Philippines.”

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