In Beijing’s official view, the Philippines has no reason to worry about Chinese fishing boats found along a disputed reef in the South China Sea.
The ships, which initially numbered in the hundreds, were simply “sheltering from the wind” and the Philippines should see the situation in a “rational light, ”said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on March 22 when the news broke.
Two weeks later, more than 40 boats are still on Whitsun Reef and the statements are getting more concise. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs on Monday warned China would issue daily diplomatic protests as long as the “maritime militia” remains in place, using the same language as the United States to describe the fleet stationed in an area known as Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines and Niu’e Jiao in China.
“If your goal is to seize a marine space and an atoll without fighting for it, this is a brilliant but dishonest tactic,” he said. Carl Schuster, former director of operations for the US Pacific Command Joint Intelligence Center “Only professional sailors know this is a lie, no one ‘shelters’ their ships in a storm zone weeks before a storm. If they really are commercial vessels, it is costing hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a day to have them loosely tied together. “
Still, it’s starting to look more and more as if Beijing is investigating whether President Joe Biden will take any action after pledging to work with allies in the region to deter Chinese assertiveness. Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin guilty the Obama administration for failing to stop China during a incident in 2012 at Scarborough Shoal, a precursor to President Xi Jinping’s decision to build military facilities across the South China Sea.
“It’s a test to see what the administration is willing to do,” said Schuster, who is now an adjunct faculty member of the University of the Pacific University of Hawaii’s military science and diplomacy program. “The reaction of the United States will determine the next test. Right now, everything we’ve done is more rhetorical than substantive. “
Last month, the United States said it supports the Philippines while accusing China of using a “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke and threaten other nations.” When asked about Chinese relations at a press conference last month, Biden He said his administration “will hold China responsible for following the rules” in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
A big problem is how to calibrate the response. China’s use of commercial fishing boats amounts to a “gray zone” tactic that allows Beijing to deny that something is wrong. Sending an aircraft carrier or other warships near the reef runs the risk of looking like an overreaction that would make the United States look like the aggressor.
On the other hand, doing nothing might seem weak. In recent years, the United States has intensified challenges to Chinese sovereignty in the waters, increasing the frequency of so-called freedom of navigation operations in disputed territory. The Biden administration also reaffirmed that the defense treaty between the United States and the Philippines covers any attack in the South China Sea, a clarification made under President Donald Trump that came after decades of official ambiguity.
Another major complication for Biden is Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, who has undermined the alliance while praising closer ties with Beijing.
“As long as President Duterte is in power, there are very limited options for the Navy,” said Rommel Ong, a retired rear admiral in the Philippine Navy who is now a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government. “Lacking any coherent strategy, it limits itself to presenting diplomatic protests and pronouncements against China through social media.”
The Philippine statement on Monday used some of the strongest terms yet, saying that a 2016 international arbitration award made it clear that China has no historical rights to fish in the area, which is within the exclusive economic zone of the United States. Southeast Asian country. He also denounced the Chinese embassy for criticizing Defense Secretary Delfín Lorenzana, who has said that the weather is good and that the ships have no reason to stay. “I’m not stupid,” he said over the weekend.
The Duterte government was reacting to an April 3 statement from China saying the waters had been “a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years” and reiterating that it was “completely normal” for boats “to take refuge near the reef. during rough seas. ” conditions. “China has denied that the ships constitute a maritime militia, saying it hopes Philippine officials” avoid any unprofessional comments that may further fuel irrational emotions. “
Duterte has remained silent so far personally, although his spokesman Harry Roque said his view of the situation has not changed.
“The president’s position is that we will defend our rights, but this is not a reason to resort to violence,” said Roque. “He is confident that thanks to our close friendship with China, we will be able to solve this.”
One factor restraining Duterte from a tougher stance may be the need to secure vaccines: Metro Manila was blocked again last week amid the worst coronavirus surge in the nation. The Philippines currently sources most of its vaccines from China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd., and Duterte attended a ceremony on March 29 in which Chinese Ambassador Huang Zilian said the blows were testimony of a “closer association in the new age”.
The United States “is not so naive” this time after its failed 2012 effort to agree a mutual withdrawal at Scarborough Shoal “did immense damage to America’s credibility in Southeast Asia,” Shahriman Lockman said. , Senior Analyst, Malaysia Institute for Strategic and International Studies.
“The Americans are afraid to get into this and not know if they will end up being blamed for the escalating situation, which is a real possibility with the wayward leadership in Manila,” he said. “A cursory answer, that’s all that is available for the Philippines.”