Pandemic not affecting China's strategy in West PH Sea – U.S. analyst

MANILA, Philippines – Opening new research units and harassing fishermen in the South China Sea are hardly new tactics by Beijing seeking to tighten its grip on the strategic waterway, and the coronavirus pandemic has neither helped nor distracted it from doing so, an American geopolitical analyst told reporters on Tuesday, April 14.

Ramping up presence and control in the South China Sea, which includes the West Philippine Sea, is so much a part of China's regular programming that it continues even as the Chinese government grapples with the pandemic, said Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Poling spoke in an online forum hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines in Manila.

He noted that China's work of reclaiming and building installations in the South China Sea is so well-advanced that it needs no pandemic or any other pressing global concern to ease attention away from these activities – they're pretty much done.

"Our data suggests that there's nothing different today that China wasn't doing 6 months ago, and presumably China won't be doing 6 months from now," Poling said.

"Beijing has a long-term intent to establish de facto control over all the sea and the airspace and the seabed within the South China Sea. It has been steadily increasing its presence, both Navy, Coast Guard, and the maritime militia, and steadily increasing the harassment of Southeast Asian oil and gas operations, fishing operations etcetera," he added.

The South China Sea grabbed public attention last week when a Chinese coast guard ship harassed and rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands, a clump of maritime features disputed by Vietnam and China, but not by the Philippines.

The disputes between the Philippines and China, and with several other claimant states, involve a swath of the Spratly Islands – the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) – and Panatag or Scarborough Shoal near Zambales in northwestern Luzon.

An international arbitral award affirmed the Philippines' sovereign rights to these features and its exclusive economic zone – the West Philippine Sea – and debunked China's spurious 9-dash line claim.

In late March, Beijing announced new research outposts in Zamora or Subi Reef and Kagitingan or Fiery Cross Reef – among 7 maritime features it reclaimed and militarized starting 2015. Poling believes Beijing merely added new research units or personnel, and built no new physical structures.

On March 29, an Israel-based satellite imaging company reported spotting a Chinese military transport plane on Kagitingan Reef. ImageSat said it showed that China's military was "hardly affected" by the pandemic.

Events such as these are part of a broader, ongoing trend, but they've drawn more public attention and condemnation recently because people are surprised they've carried on despite the pandemic.

"Now I think people are more scandalized. They've assumed that amid a global pandemic, there would be a calming [of Chinese activities in the South China Sea], and that has not happened," Poling said.

'Luck will run out sooner or later'

With Chinese vessels becoming more aggressive towards other countries' boats and oil-and-gas extraction facilities in different parts of the South China Sea, the risk of even more violent encounters is increasing, too.

All that is part of Beijing's plan, Poling said.

"China's intent is to so overwhelm the region with its navy, its coast guard, its militia, its fishing fleets, that Southeast Asian governments decide there is no reasonable choice but surrender, that they should just take whatever deal Beijing is putting on the table and go home. Because it's increasingly going to be too risky, at least for civilian actors. It is already too risky for civilian oil and gas operators. It's increasingly too risky and dangerous for fishermen to go out there."

The Philippines and China have made preliminary steps on an agreement to explore and extract oil and natural gas from Recto or Reed Bank near Palawan. The deal so far uses existing service contracts with private companies that acknowledge Philippine sovereignty in the area. Filipino maritime law expert Antonio Carpio, a former Supreme Court judge, earlier said the deal is "safe" as long as it sticks with those service contracts.

Meanwhile, Chinese fishing trawlers functioning as militias have maintained a constant presence near Pag-asa or Thitu Island in the KIG – the largest Philippine-controlled feature with a civilian population of roughly 250. Poling believes this has hampered Philippine efforts to build and improve structures on Pag-asa, although Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier denied that.

Similar Chinese vessels have harassed Philippine resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded warship that has been serving as a military outpost on Ayungin or Second Thomas Shoal.

On June 9, 2019, a Chinese trawler rammed and sank the Philippine fishing boat Gem-Ver in Recto Bank, and left its 22 Filipino crew clinging to their boat's debris for their lives until Vietnamese fishermen came and rescued them.

Poling worries that the tepid reactions, if any, from the Philippine government and the international community to these incidents leave room for even worse encounters.

"What's also clear is that this status quo can't last.... Sooner or later, luck's going to run out. We're going to have dead mariners in our hands. And when there are bodies in the water, governments around the world are going to have to decide whether or not they want to speak up. I wish that we could get there before that happens, but it seems like that's the only thing that's going to wake everybody up," Poling said.

No 'flowery language' can stop China

Although the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) sent a letter "expressing solidarity" with Vietnam over the recent mishap with the Chinese coast guard, Poling said it was not strong enough to even twit China.

"It doesn't call out China. It doesn't mention anything about who did the ramming or what Beijing should do about it. It just says, we hope everybody calms down and comes back to the table," he said.

"And it couches it in an awful lot of flowery language, which has become kind of standard for DFA these days, but it doesn’t say much behind that flowery language. It certainly doesn't suggest to me that [Foreign] Secretary [Teodoro] Locsin, much less the Palace, is suddenly prepared to speak out more forcefully," Poling added.

Besides, it would take a lot more than even the strongest condemnation from the Philippines to make China desist from taking over the West Philippine Sea, and the entire South China Sea.

"The only thing that could change that would be a concerted multilateral effort led by Southeast Asian claimants with backing by the US and Australia and others, to name and shame Beijing, to impose some kind of diplomatic and economic cost to start undermining China's larger global effort to be seen as a regional leader, or as a global leader," Poling said.

"Because if China is seen as a bully in some neighborhood, nobody is going to want to sign up to the idea that China is going to help set rules internationally," he added.

As for the Philippines and its sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea now severely undermined by China, Poling expects President Rodrigo Duterte to maintain his administration's non-confrontational tack with Beijing, which means not much will change for Filipino fishermen and mariners who have now largely been edged out by Chinese vessels.

The only thing that could possibly pressure Duterte to be tougher on China, Poling said, would be an incident worse than Gem-Ver, which is bound to happen with China's unbridled vessels out at sea. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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