The Philippines Flashpoint

Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea and adjacent waters remains a concern
By Stu Cvrk
Stu Cvrk
Stu Cvrk
Stu Cvrk retired as a captain after serving 30 years in the U.S. Navy in a variety of active and reserve capacities, with considerable operational experience in the Middle East and the Western Pacific. Through education and experience as an oceanographer and systems analyst, Cvrk is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he received a classical liberal education that serves as the key foundation for his political commentary.
July 13, 2023Updated: July 15, 2023

Commentary

Hot wars frequently happen where they are least expected, or while attention is diverted elsewhere. The North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950, the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the 1998–99 Kosovo conflict, and other armed hostilities surprised many by their eruption and intensity. The world has been fixated on Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February 2022, while the Taiwan Strait has been brought into acute international focus by increased People’s Liberation Army (PLA) saber-rattling in the waters and airspace surrounding Taiwan throughout 2022 and 2023.

Regarding the latter, the increasing belligerence of the PLA in East and South Asia is increasingly of concern to nations on China’s periphery, especially Taiwan. The communist Chinese “absorption” of Hong Kong and continuing persecution of dissenters (including people who have fled Hong Kong) is viewed by many as a harbinger—an anticipatory sign of what is to come.

While the world is focused elsewhere, could it be that armed hostilities with the Philippines is “what is to come”? Let us examine the possibility.

Chinese Territorial Encroachment

The list of disputed territories in East Asia is long: Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, Senkaku Islands, Ryukyu Islands, and a host of artificial and natural reefs, shoals, and other land features in the South China and East China seas. A primary reason for the disputes among China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Japan is economic, including extensive fisheries and an “estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas” in the area, as noted by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Chinese have been occupying disputed land features and building island bases on coral atolls in the South China Sea for over 10 years to extend their territorial and military control over the entire area. Examples include the following:

  • Woody Island (Paracels) is the largest natural land feature occupied by China in the South China Sea and has been militarized with surface-to-air missile launchers and an air base, as noted here.
  • Scarborough Shoal was occupied by the PLA in 2012, although the Philippines won a legal victory with an UNCLOS decision in 2016 to award maritime jurisdiction of the shoal to Manila. Nevertheless, China has maintained a near-continuous presence there by various Coast Guard and other ships, which has effectively militarized the shoal.

China has built and militarized at three artificial islands in the Spratly Islands, including Mischief Reef, by installing “anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets,” as reported by The Guardian last year.

China Pressures the Philippines

The Chinese communists apparently also adhere to the adages “Possession is nine-tenths of the law” and “Might makes right.” China has routinely ignored the UNCLOS decision on Spratly Island maritime jurisdiction and protests by other nations in militarizing the disputed islands and has also frequently violated the Philippines’ Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) with impunity. In November 2021, the Chinese interfered with a routine Filipino ship resupply mission to their outpost on Second Thomas Shoal. As reported by the Center for Strategic and International Studies at the time, the two civilian boats delivering supplies “were blocked and water-cannoned by three Chinese Coast Guard vessels.”

In a recent incident in the West Philippine Sea, reported on July 7 by ABS-CBN News, “48 Chinese fishing vessels swarming Iroquois Reef and five Chinese Coast Guard and People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels [were spotted] near Sabina Shoal.” As noted by the U.S. Naval Institute, “The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled in 2016 that Reed Bank is within the Philippine EEZ and the Philippines had economic rights for the area, although China refuses to recognize the ruling and claims the area as within its territory.” Despite the Filipino Department of Foreign Affairs having filed of 97 diplomatic protests over China’s presence in the West Philippine Sea, Chinese vessel presence in these areas—and intimidating actions such as the above—have been nearly constant for years.

The Philippine Star reported that the United States is installing military facilities in Northern Luzon in Cagayan at the Camilo Osias Naval Base and Lal-lo Airport under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the United States and the Philippines. This site is one of four planned installations under the mutual defense treaty into which the new government of President Fernand Marcos, Jr., has breathed new life in his foreign policy shift toward the United States and away from China. The Filipinos are perhaps growing tired of the increasing Chinese pressures and are reaching out to their old wartime ally for assistance.

The Chinese Gambit

There are at least three Chinese objectives in its strategy in the South and East China Seas: to gain complete control over the region’s resources on Chinese terms; to intimidate its neighbors into de facto submission to China’s regional goals and objectives; and to increase the hazards in the deployment and use of U.S. military forces in the Western Pacific over time. The increasing presence of Chinese Coast Guard, the PLA-Navy, and vast Chinese fishing fleet accomplishes the first two objectives. Examples of the latter noted by GIS Reports include “high-risk interceptions of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea and recent aggressive maneuvers by a Chinese guided-missile destroyer to obstruct an American destroyer in the Taiwan Strait, which resulted in a near-collision.”

But what if Chinese leader Xi Jinping has something else in mind for the Philippines? Doubtless, he is disturbed by the U-turn in Chinese-Filipino relations being led by President Marcos, Jr. Perhaps he wishes to deliver a lesson to those who would spurn Chinese “friendship” by initiating an incident at sea in the Philippines EEZ that would lead to a military confrontation and possibly even open hostilities. This would be a test of Filipino and U.S. resolve under the EDCA, as well as be a measuring stick for the rapidity and nature of the U.S. response to a threatened ally—in short, another data point or two in the PLA’s calculus for a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan.

Concluding Thoughts

While much of the world’s focus in East Asia is on speculation of when (not if) China will invade Taiwan, Chinese mischief elsewhere in the region could become the first flashpoint for the PLA/PLAN. And the Philippines could be in Mr. Xi’s crosshairs.

U.S. secretary of defense Lloyd Austin seemed to recognize the threat in a phone conversation on July 6 with Philippine secretary of national defense Gilberto Teodoro Jr. Secretary Austin “noted with concern the PRC’s recent coercive and risky operational behavior directed against Philippine vessels operating safely and lawfully in the South China Sea, including around Second Thomas Shoal.” Of particular importance, he stated that the EDCA “extends to Philippine public vessels, aircraft, and armed forces—to include those of its Coast Guard—in the Pacific, including anywhere in the South China Sea.”

That’s a good sign that the United States is serious about supporting the Philippines under the mutual defense treaty and is closely watching China’s actions in the South China Sea—and elsewhere in East Asia.

Another excellent sign that other nations are paying attention is India’s revision of its position regarding the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration to “support Manila’s territorial claims over China,” as reported by the U.S. Naval Institute on July 5. Xi Jinping must be further inflamed as he watches India stepping up to its role in delivering the Quad’s vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region. (The Quad is a loose alliance consisting of India, Australia, Japan, and the United States that is focused on deterring Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific.)

Will these efforts be sufficient to prevent a possible flashpoint in the West Philippine Sea or nearby waters? Vigilance, readiness, and preparation are the orders of the day.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.