Rear Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo, the Philippine Navy’s newly appointed chief, is not clearly taking his early command orders from President Rodrigo Duterte.
Bacordo, who took up the navy’s top post on February 3, vowed at his appointment ceremony to “continue to maintain the nine occupied features in the [South China Sea]. We will continue to replenish and rotate our personnel in the [area],” he said.
“At all times, we will show the flag in the [sea],” he told reporters, in remarks that likely pleased the United States and potentially irked China, which lays claim to some of the sea features Bacordo swore to defend as Philippine territory.
Bacardo’s appointment, made with Duterte’s approval, comes against the backdrop of fast-fraying US-Philippine ties.
In recent weeks, Duterte has vowed to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) – a pact that allows the US to station troops on Philippine soil on a rotational basis – in diplomatic retaliation for a US travel ban imposed on certain of his top political allies accused of human rights abuses.
Duterte also declined a recent White House invitation to attend a US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Leaders Summit to be staged with President Donald Trump as host next month in Las Vegas.
The Philippine leader has given the US a one-month deadline to reverse the travel ban, according to Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar.
“So we are observing and we are waiting for the decision of the United States and after that we shall cross the bridge when we get there,” Andanar said in reference to Duterte’s tit-for-tat threat to scrap the VFA.
Andanar said it is Duterte’s “choice” and “prerogative” if he wants to downgrade strategic ties with the US and build strategic relations with US rivals China and Russia, as his administration has done in recent years.
“If he wants to open our country to being friends with other superpowers like the People’s Republic of China and Russia, then so be it,” Andanar said amid the spiraling diplomatic spat.
Those statements, however, are at odds with the Philippine military establishment, which in recent days has underscored its commitment to maintaining robust ties with the US to defend national interests, including in the South China Sea.
“We will continue to engage [the US]. We will continue to exercise with them,” said Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad, the navy’s outgoing chief, in late January.
Despite Duterte’s lean towards China, the AFP has remained suspicious of the Asian powerhouse’s intentions as it has expanded its coast guard and paramilitary presence in Philippine waters in recent years.
China has also recently deployed warplanes, including nuclear-capable bombers, deep into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
The Philippines currently controls nine land features in the Chinese-claimed Spratly island chain.
Locally known as the Kalayaan (freedom) Group of Islands, they include Thitu (Pagasa Island), Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin), Nanshan (Lawak Island), Northeast Cay (Parola Island), Flat (Patag Island), Loaita (Kota Island), Commodore (Rizal Reef), West York (Likas Island), and Lankiam (Panata Island).
The land features have been defended for decades by Philippine military attachments, with each rotating group of Navy and Marine troops serving three-to-six-month tours in the hotly contested maritime area.
The biggest Philippine-controlled land feature is Thitu Island, the second largest naturally-formed island in the area which serves as host to its own civilian community, an airstrip and a number of Philippine military personnel since the 1970s.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has also maintained a presence since the late 1990’s over the Second Thomas Shoal, a low tide elevation close to the energy-rich Reed Bank area through a rusty, grounded transport ship known as BRP Sierra Madre.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, China started to consolidate its control over the nearby Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef.
In 2012, after a months-long naval standoff, China also seized control of the contested Scarborough Shoal, a crucial feature in any future Chinese bid to establish an Aerial Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. Both land features fall within the Philippines’ EEZ.
More recently, China has tightened a naval noose around the Philippine outpost at the Second Thomas Shoal by harassing the AFP’s supply lines and surveillance missions in the area.
Last June, tensions between the two countries reached new heights, when a suspected Chinese militia vessel rammed a Filipino fishing vessel, nearly drowning its 22 fishermen. Throughout 2019, China deployed an ever-larger armada of paramilitary forces close to Philippine-occupied islands in the sea.
The AFP has also opposed China’s attempts to penetrate strategic Philippine infrastructure.
Having successfully blocked Chinese inroads into strategic bases in Subic Bay and Fuga Island, the Philippine Navy has also raised concerns about the US$10 billion Sangley Point International Airport project, which is expected to be developed by China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC).
“If ever there are Chinese facilities there, one of the challenges is the Navy could get spied on because it’s nearby. We need to boost our information technology, cyber-capability so we can keep track of them,” said Empedrad in a press briefing on February 5.
The US, which in recent months has ramped up so-called freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, is likely to welcome new navy chief Bacordo’s hard stance and tough rhetoric.
Speaking at an event at the University of Santo Tomas on February 3, US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim emphasized the importance of a sustained US military presence in the Philippines to guard against shared strategic threats, likely meaning China.
His military-focused speech, some noted, came just two days before Bacordo officially took over his new post as navy chief.
“The alliance remains as important today as it was 75 years ago, as we work together to respond to humanitarian disasters, counterterrorism, and keep the Indo-Pacific region free and open for all nations,” the US envoy said, indirectly questioning Duterte’s call to abrogate the VFA.
“The profound importance of our alliance became evident to me shortly after my arrival in the Philippines three years ago, when crisis broke out in Mindanao. As ISIS-inspired terrorists took over the city of Marawi, our alliance didn’t skip a beat,” he said.
Kim also highlighted the VFA’s centrality to joint humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief operations, seen most prominently during the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan disaster, when the US dispatched 13,400 US troops, 66 aircraft and 12 ships to storm-devastated areas.
More significantly, perhaps, Kim has also suggested that the US would come to the Philippines’ defense if its troops or vessels ever came under deliberate Chinese attack, including by paramilitary forces, as outlined in the two sides’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
The US likely hopes that diplomatic support will translate into more naval cooperation under Bacordo.
According to a report by the South China Morning Post, last year saw the largest ever number of US FONOPs, most staged in direct challenge to China’s wide-reaching claims, in the South China Sea.
While previous US president Barack Obama’s administration launched more irregular FONOPs within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied islands, recent years have seen a steady increase from six in 2017 and seven in 2019, a significant rise from only three in 2016 and two in 2015.