China is 700 kilometers away from the Philippines. Until 1994, Filipinos thought of China as a huge neighbor across the South China Sea that posed no threat to Philippine interests or security. But on February 8, 1995, Filipinos woke up to find a Chinese flag flying over the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, some 200 kilometers from Palawan. Eight Chinese ships were in the area, and some of them were armed. Mischief Reef, which is off the Philippine coast but now controlled by China, has been filled out and turned into a Chinese military base, complete with radar domes, shelters for surface-to-air missiles and a runway long enough for fighter jets. Six other nearby shoals have been similarly transformed by Chinese dredging.
In 2012, the Chinese Coast Guard had muscled the Philippines off the Scarborough Shoal, which is just 120 nautical miles from Luzon. China was not so far away, after all, and it has become a real threat to Philippine interests and security. The reality is that countries with overlapping territorial claims—the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam—lack the firepower to challenge China.
On March 7, the Philippine Coast Guard spotted about 220 Chinese vessels moored at the Julian Felipe reef, about 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of Palawan, which is within the country’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone. This means the Philippines has the exclusive right to exploit or conserve all resources in the area. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Sunday demanded that the vessels, which he said were militia boats, must leave the area.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest over the Chinese presence. But China insisted it owns the reef, which it calls Niué Jiao, and said the Chinese vessels converged in the area to avoid rough waters. The US Embassy, however, said “Chinese boats have been mooring in this area for many months in ever increasing numbers, regardless of the weather.”
From the Associated Press: “The United States said Tuesday it’s backing the Philippines in a new standoff with Beijing in the disputed South China Sea, where Manila has asked a Chinese fishing flotilla to leave a reef. China ignored the call, insisting it owns the offshore territory. The US Embassy said it shared the concerns of the Philippines and accused China of using “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region. “We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia,” the US Embassy in Manila said in a statement.”
The United States has long fashioned itself as a keeper of peace in the Asia-Pacific region. But pundits say it’s a risky proposition to provoke conflict over a scattering of rocks in the South China Sea. “As China’s military power grows relative to the United States, and it will, questions will also grow regarding America’s ability to deter Beijing’s use of force in settling its unresolved territorial issues,” said Rear Adm. Michael McDevitt, who is now a senior fellow in strategic studies at the Center for Naval Analyses.
President Duterte has nurtured friendly ties with China since taking office in 2016. He also sought infrastructure funds, trade and investments from China, which has donated and pledged to deliver more Covid-19 vaccines as the Philippines faces an alarming spike in Covid infections. However, the President should do something to stop China’s continuous incursions into the country’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zones. Maybe it’s about time to demand China’s compliance with an international arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s historic claims to virtually the entire South China Sea. We have to safeguard our national sovereignty, security and our interests.