Hong Kong, April 5 (ANI): Another standoff is brewing in the South China Sea, after swarms of Chinese fishing boats and subversive Chinese militia in disguise arrived and parked themselves in the Union Banks.
The fact is that Union Banks - and Whitsun Reef, where 220 Chinese vessels initially congregated in early March - is well within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. China is making a move from its playbook for additional maritime territory.
If the Philippines does not respond, it can expect to wave goodbye to this feature in the Union Banks, one located just 129km from its own strategically important Thitu Island.
When told to leave Whitsun Reef by the Philippine government, the Chinese Embassy in Manila haughtily responded that it is part of Chinese territory. "Chinese fishing vessels have been fishing in its adjacent waters for many years. Recently, some Chinese fishing vessels take shelter near Niu'e Jiao [the Chinese name for Whitsun Reef] due to rough sea conditions. It has been a normal practice for Chinese fishing vessels to take shelter under such circumstances. There is no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged. Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation. It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner."
The embassy's statement was replete with hubris, disinformation and outright lies, igniting strong emotion among the Philippine populace.
In response, Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana responded on 4 April, "The utter disregard by the Chinese Embassy in Manila of international law, especially the UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] to which China is a party, is appalling. Its Nine-Dash Line claim is without any factual or legal basis. This, together with its so-called historical claim, was flatly and categorically rejected by the arbitral tribunal. The Philippines' claims stand on solid ground, while China's do not."
Lorenzana added, "The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea. They have done this before at Panatag Shoal [Scarborough shoal]...and at Panganiban Reef [Mischief Reef], brazenly violating Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights under international law ... China should refrain from conducting activities that disturb regional and international peace and security."
China brazenly won de facto possession of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, maintaining a continual paramilitary presence at the maritime feature since then after muscling out the Philippines. Many expect China to someday reclaim land and create a military base there as it has done at seven other locations in the Spratly Islands.
Scarborough Shoal is much more to the east and therefore closer to the Philippines, so it would help create a wider network of island bases for the People's Liberation Army (PLA). For that reason, Chinese activity at Scarborough Shoal is closely monitored.
However, China chose to make its latest foray, a land grab, if you will, at Whitsun Reef instead, the largest reef in the Union Banks and 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza on Palawan Island in the Philippines. In March, the Philippine military and government expressed deep concern at the presence of a stunning couple of hundred Chinese fishing boats lined up with military precision at Whitsun Reef.
Even Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has proven to be something of a lapdog to Beijing, was forced to complain. Manila lodged a formal diplomatic protest to Beijing, though Duterte has been quiet on the matter since then. Last year, a defeatist Duterte stated that China was in "possession" of the South China Sea and that it was, therefore, futile to act against it. Duterte also promulgates a false binary range of options - to go to war with China or to totally accede to Beijing.
Certainly, nobody expects Manila to go to war against China, but the country needs to stand up for what it is entitled under international law. Firstly, in July 2016 the Philippines won a resounding victory in the international court of law when the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in its favour and lambasted China for its outrageous maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea. The court ruled that Chinese territorial claims, including its Nine-Dash Line, have absolutely no merit or legal basis. However, Duterte has frittered away that legal and moral victory with his obeisance to China.
Secondly, the Philippines has a longstanding Mutual Defense Treaty with the USA, something that other neighbours like Malaysia and Vietnam do not have as they too wrestle with Chinese assertiveness. This treaty promises that the USA would militarily support the Philippines should the country or its forces come under attack.
Thus, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated positively on 28 March: "The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC's maritime militia amassing at Whitsun Reef. We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order."
The USA is pursuing a multilateral approach to stand up to China, including forging cooperative groups and alliances to resist Chinese rule-breaking. This activity by China in the Spratly Islands has all the initial hallmarks of a foreign policy challenge for US President Joe Biden.
Meanwhile, Teddy Locsin, the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs, is guilty of following Duterte's limp policy with China. Two days after a trip to China to meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi, he tweeted, "China can say what it wants; the Philippines will do what it must to keep what's hers by right. Irrelevant whether we possess commensurate military power to meet the challenge; we will not yield but die - or trigger World War 3. Not a bad outcome; living is overrated. Honour is all."
Again we see that false dichotomy of two extremes routinely presented by the Philippine government - either surrender or war. Neither extreme is necessary, but it does illustrate the extraordinary success that Chinese pressure and propaganda has had on the leadership of the Philippines.
The Chinese official narrative that these are mere fishing boats and crews sheltering from inclement weather is patently false. Indeed, research proves that elements of the People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), a subset of the PLA's long chain of command, are heavily present in the Union Banks. Indeed, the Chinese embassy's claims that there is no such entity as the PAFMM are a bald-faced lie, since the Chinese government has formally mentioned the militia's existence on numerous occasions.
Important research has been done by Professor Andrew Erickson and Ryan Martinson, both of whom belong to the China Maritime Studies Institute of the Naval War College in the USA. Using freely available data from Chinese automatic identification system (AIS) tracking websites, which show the locations and voyages of vessels, the two American scholars identified seven fishing boats at Whitsun Reef as being among the "Fancheng Nine", a group of nine boats that work for an obscure company called Taishan Fancheng Fisheries Development.
In fact, these are no ordinary fishing boats. These 62.8m-long trawlers are actually assigned to the Far Seas Militia Squadron of the PAFMM. The nine boats - which were built and delivered in just nine months - were delivered on 5 December 2017. At their formal handover ceremony, Wan Liang'an, deputy commander of the Jiangmen Military Sub-district; and Zhang Yuanfa, director of the Readiness Construction Bureau, Jiangmen Military Sub-district, were both in attendance representing China's military. It was obvious from the beginning that these boats were designed for a lot more than fishing.
Erickson noted that the "Fancheng Nine" are assets of the Taishan PAFMM and that they are subject to the PLA chain of command. Older footage of these "fishing boats" shows locker rooms containing small arms, and maritime militia boats are routinely manned by retired PLA Navy personnel as they perform clandestine missions at the behest of the PLA.
Erickson commented, "At the very least, seven PAFMM vessels have been operating at the Spratly Islands' Union Banks, including Whitsun Reef - both during the past month and multiple times over the past year ... They don't troll for fish, but rather for territory."
AIS tracking data shows a squadron of seven of these vessels sailing to Subi Reef, Mischief Reef and Union Banks over the past year. The first two are military bases built by China in the Spratly Islands. These same boats have also conducted intimidation operations in Sandy Cay, just west of the Philippines' Thitu Island. Furthermore, their routes highlight that they are not fishing. Instead of trawling back and forth, they sail 1,300km directly to their patrol areas and then return straight home.
Erickson added: "None of this behaviour would make any sense for fishing vessels - which have strong economic incentives to fish frequently, not linger offshore. [It] instead mirrors the Sansha PAFMM's rotational forward deployments to Scarborough, Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi." In other words, there is no difference between what the "Fancheng Nine" are doing and what PAFMM boats from other militias are doing in the South China Sea.
AIS tracking shows that the latest deployment began with eight boats of the "Fancheng Nine" departing Guangdong on 16 February. They reached Subi Reef several days later. At least seven patrolled the Union Banks, with the eighth vessel having turned off its AIS soon after leaving port.
This modus operandi is typical of China - it ring-fences disputed South China Sea features, establishes permanent presences and drives off others such as local fishermen. China employs this same methodology along the Indian border too, using gray-zone tactics where possible to avoid outright confrontation and to "soften" the military nature of its territorial activities.
The Philippine Air Force has been sending AS.211 jet trainers and other aircraft over the reef on a daily basis. Lorenzana said on 27 March that the military would beef up its naval presence and conduct "sovereignty patrols" to protect Filipino fishermen. It also dispatched a Philippine Coast Guard vessel to the reef, which captured clear video and camera imagery of the Chinese interlopers.
As of 29 March, there were 183 Chinese vessels still at Whitsun Reef, as Beijing rejected Philippine requests for them to leave. Shortly after that, by 31 March, the Chinese fleet had begun to disperse. However, they were not departing, but simply redeploying to other nearby reefs - without leaving the area at all.
In early April there were still 44 vessels in the lagoon of Whitsun Reef, but 115 were at Kennan Reef, 45 near Thitu Island, and another 50 dispersed among Mischief, Fiery and Subi Reefs. Sea conditions were calm, making a mockery of Chinese arguments that they were taking refuge from inclement weather.
It can be predicted that this arm-wrestling for control is far from over. China is using tried-and-tested methods of ambiguity - gray-zone tactics - that have already been wielded to much success.
It could well be that Beijing is testing out the Philippine response and how well Manila will coordinate with the USA after a new US president took up office. Furthermore, Duterte will be leaving office in May 2022, so now is a good time for Beijing to take advantage of his leniency and defeatism. The timing is not accidental, even as the world continues to be preoccupied by COVID-19.
The appearance of swarms of Chinese boats to occupy new territory in the South China Sea is therefore not an unexpected gambit. However, it is one that the Philippines must respond to. A robust response, such as Indonesia's reaction to a Chinese fishing fleet and accompanying Chinese Coast Guard boats near the Natuna Islands in early 2020, is definitely needed from Manila. (ANI)