Two Chinese vessels anchored at Whitsun Reef, some 320 kilometers west of Palawan Island in the South China Sea, an area claimed by Manila. Photo: AFP / National Task Force-West Philippine Sea

In a clear challenge to the Biden administration’s Asia policy, China has upped the ante in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Over the past month, Beijing has deployed an armada of suspected maritime militia forces to land features claimed by the Philippines, a US treaty ally.

In response, the Philippines scrambled fighter jets in the area and has threatened to deploy its naval frigates to eject the unwanted visitors from the country’s exclusive economic zone. 

The Philippines’ defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana made it clear: “We are ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines,” as the Southeast Asian country mobilized its naval, air and coast guard forces in a rare show of force in the South China Sea. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stood firmly by its Southeast Asian ally, stating over Twitter: “The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC’s [China’s] maritime militia [intimidation]” and that Washington “will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order.” 

With only a month left before the scheduled abrogation of the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) amid rows over human rights issues between Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Washington, China is clearly making the most out of the uncertainties in the century-old alliance to press its expansive claims in adjacent waters.

In late March, the Philippines’ National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea reported the presence of more than 200 Chinese vessels in the Kalayaan Group of Islands (KIG), which covers a number of land features in the Spratlys claimed and or controlled by the Philippines. 

Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has repeatedly visited the area. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

Chinese military bases

The KIG covers almost a dozen land features, including the highly-prized Thitu Island, which has hosted a relative number of Philippine civilians and troops as well as a modern airstrip over the past four decades. 

Since 2017, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana repeatedly visited the area to oversee the rehabilitation and upgrade of existing facilities to augment the Philippine position in the area, especially with China reclaiming and militarizing nearby land features into massive networks of military bases. 

At the heart of a current stand-off is the almost month-long encirclement of the Philippine-claimed Whitsun Reef, located within Union Reefs, which falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

The Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana also warned of the reported establishment of “illegal” Chinese structures over the Union Banks, a likely prelude to reclamation and militarization of another Philippine-claimed feature. 

Chinese militia forces have reportedly also been intimidating Philippine positions across other land features in the Spratlys.  

In response, Manila has deployed navy, Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessels to monitor and assert Philippine claims in the area. 

Lorenzana assured the Philippine public that there “will be an increased presence of the Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard ships to conduct sovereignty patrols and protect our fishermen in the West Philippine Sea.”

Over the past few weeks, however, China repeatedly downplayed the situation as “completely normal,” arguing that these were ordinary fishing vessels stranded in a “traditional fishing ground” amid “rough sea conditions.”

This fleet of Chinese ships has sparked a diplomatic row after parking at a reef off the Philippines for weeks. Photo: AFP/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea

Diplomatic gibberish

Experts and Philippine officials, however, have rejected China’s claims as outright diplomatic gibberish. 

“If your goal is to take over a sea space and atoll without fighting for it, this is a brilliant if dishonest tactic,” Carl Schuster, a naval operations expert, told Bloomberg. “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,” he added. 

In a clear sign of exasperation, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called on China to “leave the area now” since “the weather has been good so far, so they have no other reason to stay there.” 

Over the weekend, he also released a strongly-worded statement, which slammed China’s “appalling” disregard for international law and regional norms and principles. 

“The utter disregard by the Chinese embassy in Manila of international law, especially the UNCLOS to which China is a party, is appalling. Its 9-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,” said Lorenzana.

Invoking the 2016 arbitral tribunal award at the Hague under the auspices of the UNCLOS, which rejected the bulk of China’s claim in adjacent waters as illegal, the Philippine defense chief declared: “The Philippines’ [maritime] claims stand on solid ground, while China’s do not.” 

Earlier, the Chinese Embassy in Manila fired back by mocking Lorenzana’s statement as “perplexing” and “wanton remarks” that will unnecessarily raise tensions.

This satellite image taken on March 23, 2021, shows Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef. Photo: AFP/Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

US backing

Soon after, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) joined in and made it clear it “strongly denounces the [Chinese] Embassy’s attempt to impugn” the Philippine defense secretary, and “reminded that they are guests of the Philippine Government, and as guests must at all times observe protocol and accord respect to Philippine Government officials.”

The Philippine defense and foreign policy establishment seem increasingly encouraged by the tough stance of the Biden administration on the disputes. Earlier this year, Blinken “underscored that the United States rejects China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea to the extent they exceed the maritime zones that China is permitted to claim under international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.”

Crucially, the Biden administration has also emphasized its treaty commitments to its Southeast Asian ally by emphasizing that “a strong US-Philippine alliance is vital to a free and open Indo-Pacific region” and “stressed the importance of the Mutual Defence Treaty for the security of both nations.” 

President Rodrigo Duterte has tried to mediate with China in the past. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

The main challenge for a united Philippine-US front against China, however, is the Beijing-leaning Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has threatened to scrap key defense deals with the US, most especially the VFA, the fate of which is still under negotiations. 

Unless the fate VFA is fully restored, it will be difficult for the US to forward deploy its troops and enhance interoperability with as well as strengthen the maritime security capacity of its Southeast Asian ally. 

Eager to prevent a breakdown in bilateral relations with China, Duterte has tried to mediate the current impasse by directly talking to the Chinese envoy in Manila, while emphasizing the importance of “close friendship” with the Asian powerhouse. 

“The president’s stand is that we will stand by our rights, but this is not a reason to resort to violence,” Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said amid an escalating war of words between China and top Philippine officials over the South China Sea. “[Duterte] is confident that because of our close friendship with China, we will be able to resolve this,” he added.