Philippines: South China Sea Escalation


June 2, 2021: China has apparently decided to undertake a major operation to force the Philippines out of Pagasa Island, the second largest of the Spratly Islands and claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, which is the only claimant with a settlement and military garrison on the island. The Chinese are using non-lethal (most of the time) force to drive everyone else out the South China Sea islands they claim. The last time China used force (against Vietnam) was in the 1970s, before China became dependent on the sea lanes that pass through the South China Sea to the Middle East, Africa and Australia. Since the 1980s China has become dependent on imports of raw materials from those three areas as well as exporting manufactured goods to them and the world. For China the South China Sea campaign is mainly about internal Chinese politics. China presents the South China Sea operation to Chinese as a necessary effort to regain control over lost (to Western imperialists) territory and secure China’s economic future. That’s a lie but so far China has sold it internally to Chinese eager to regain lost glory. China realizes it cannot afford an actual war over the South China Sea, because that would most definitely disrupt Chinese foreign trade and risk permanent damage to China or even the communist government that was established in 1949 and survives only because of economic reforms that allow a market economy and increasing living standards higher than anything previously experienced by Chinese.

While the South China Sea combat is non-lethal, the economic damage to other nations with legal claims to portions of the South China Sea is very real. As this shoving match escalates, other major trading nations, especially the United States, Japan and South Korea, as well as more distant industrialized nations, are lending military support. While everyone is under orders to not open fire (unless facing a lethal threat) the risk of the shoving match turning into a shooting match increases.

For centuries Pagasa was one of several small islands in the South China Sea where fishing boats could seek shelter from rough weather, No one claimed to own it until the 20th century when France, then occupying nearby Vietnam as a colony, annexed Pagasa as part of Vietnam. During World War II Japanese troops took over Pagasa. After the French left Vietnam in the 1950s, South Vietnam claimed the island in 1963 but did not station troops on Pagasa. In 1956 a small Filipino civilian declared Pagasa a free territory but Filipino troops did not occupy the island until 1971, when Taiwan withdrew the few troops, it had on the island because of the Typhoon danger and after that the Philippines decided to send troops to build structures, docks and an airfield and those facilities continue to be improved. In 2016 the PCA (Permanent Court of Arbitration), the UN approved international court for hearing such disputes, upheld the Filipino claim and rejected the Chinese one.

In 2019 the Philippines considered declaring Pagasa and the nearby Eastern Kalayaan islands a MPA (marine protected areas). That was not done because it would involve trying to restrict lots of activity in the area in order to protect rare species. China is currently the worst offender but Filipino fishing activity was also technically violating MPA rules and would be banned as well.

According to maritime law (and recently affirmed by the PCA) these areas, which are within 200 kilometers of the Philippines (Palawan Island), are well within the Philippines’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone, waters 380 kilometers from the coast). Although the EEZ is recognized by international law, and a treaty that China signed and uses to defend waters off its own coast, China says that does not apply here because all the islets in the South China Sea belong to China and there is no room for negotiation on that point.

China created the current crisis over who controls Pagasa Island and nearby sandbars. Since 2019 China has sent a record number of ships to block access to disputed islands, especially, Pagasa. Most of these are Chinese fishing boats pretending to be fishing but in reality, are members of the Chinese naval militia which is now composed of about a thousand ships that are paid regularly to be available when called upon to carry out paramilitary duties, usually in the South China Sea. China insists it has not ordered its naval militia fishing boats to physically block Filipino commercial or military ships from getting to Pagasa. Despite that pledge it has become more difficult for Filipino fishing boats to operate in areas they had long worked. China has been threatening to cut off access to Pagasa since 2014 but has never followed through, possibly because the Philippines has often stationed a warship off Pagasa. China claims ownership, despite Pagasa being closer to the Philippines than China and long occupied by Filipinos. Also called Thitu Island, Pagasa is the second-largest (37.2 hectares/93 acres) of the Spratly Islands and is inhabited by 200 Filipinos civilians and a few military personnel.

The Philippines has played nice with China for over a decade while also upgrading its naval and air forces. The Filipino rearmament program has been aided by American, Japanese and Australian donations of warships and aircraft as well as offers of low-cost military equipment. Because of that the Philippines now has enough warships and patrol aircraft to maintain constant patrols of disputed areas. China responds with larger (often over a hundred at a time) unarmed ships as well as a growing number of armed ships and aircraft.

May 28, 2021: The Philippines sent its 100th diplomatic protest to China over illegal Chinese actions in the South China Sea. China has ignored them all, although some result in a diplomatic protest from China. The Filipino protests have been happening nearly every day since early April when the Philippines announced it would seek a peaceful solution to the dispute over “Whitsun Reef”. President Duterte deliberately used the international name for the reef, which is also known as Julian Felipe Reef because that is what Filipinos call it and until China came along the Philippines had the strongest claim on the, until recently underwater, reef. Such a reef is valuable because it is prime fishing grounds and does provide some shelter from large waves during bad weather. Duterte has tried playing nice with the Chinese but so far has been burned more often than benefitted from this approach.

May 26, 2021: In the north (near Bataan) an explosion at a government small arms ammunition production facility left two workers dead and two wounded. An external attack was not the cause, but rather an accident while handling explosive materials. Such accidents are rare in the Philippines but always a possibility as well as attacks by leftist rebels or Islamic terrorists.

May 25, 2021: In central Philippines (Bohol province) security forces found and clashed with eleven armed members of the NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party) and killed five of them. One soldier was wounded. The NPA, along with the smaller ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups in the south, have been in decline for over a decade but have been active for about half a century. The end of the Cold War in 1991 and the collapse of most communist governments in Europe left the NPA without much external, or internal support and now the NPA is regarded as bandits who used to be leftist rebels.

The government announced that after three years of negotiations the contract for Turkish helicopter gunships has been signed. Initially the Philippines wanted ten T129 helicopter gunships from Turkey. The order was reduced to six gunships for about $45 million each. The first two will arrive later this year and the rest by 2022,

May 24, 2021: A British carrier strike group, including the new 65,000-ton carrier Queen Elizabeth and its escorts (including a nuclear sub) will arrive in July for joint exercises with local nations defending themselves from Chinese maritime claims. The Queen Elizabeth carries an Anglo-American air group consisting of British Fleet Air Arm and U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs.

May 11, 2021: In the south (Maguindanao province) one of the junior leaders of the Maute Group was killed. Maute is one the three Islamic terrorist groups, all now affiliated with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) that continue to operate in the south. The largest of these is Abu Sayyaf, which is down to less than two hundred active armed members and key supporters. The remainder is split between two smaller but similar groups; BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) and Maute Group. The government has killed or arrested eleven Maute Group members so far this year, which is one reason why the group has not been able to carry out any attacks lately.




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