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In the past few weeks, the tension arising from China’s coercive tactics at the West Philippine Sea (WPS) has escalated.
At the Second Thomas Shoal last November 10, 38 Chinese vessels swarmed around the adjacent waters; water cannons along with reckless maneuvers were employed to harass our vessels involved in the resupply mission. In a more recent incident, last December 10, one of the supply boats incurred propulsion damage, and an escorting Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel suffered minor structural damage. A second supply boat was deliberately “rammed” by another Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel with no physical damage, albeit it was able to successfully complete its mission to resupply BRP Sierra Madre. There were indications also that the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) is gradually taking a more active role in supporting these operations.
In other parts of the Spratlys Group of Islands, swarms of militia (PAFMM) vessels were “constructively occupying” unguarded shoals and reefs located within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Specifically, about 135 militia vessels observed were anchored together in close formation inside Whitsun Reef last December 3.
At Scarborough Shoal, a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessel was harassed by CCG and militia vessels last December 9 while in the process of providing supplies to Filipino fishing boats nearby. The CCG damaged the BFAR vessel’s communication and navigation equipment using a water cannon; and it has reportedly employed a long-range acoustic device (LRAD) as well.
In these recent incidents, China’s assertion of “sea control” is now manifested through the use of “swarming” and “mission-kill” tactics. The former involved the surging of navy, coast guard, and militia vessels to attain localized control over shoals and reefs and the waters around it for a limited period of time. On the other hand, the latter involved the use of ramming and water cannons to disable our vessels while avoiding inflicting casualties. Unfortunately, these tactics expose the lack of ships and boats we have dedicated to the WPS. This situation will be aggravated by the attrition of those vessels that will be sidelined for repairs.
In the aftermath, the clamor to expel the Chinese ambassador back to Beijing has gained traction among various sectors of society. This may reflect the frustration of Filipinos with the current efforts to deal with these incidents. On the other hand, some are struggling to make sense of the government’s strategy to address China’s aggressive posture, while others ask if there is one.
Perhaps other options should be considered which would not escalate tension in the WPS, by shifting the arena of contention closer to home. Those that come to mind are the following.
- Killing the idea of a Chinese-funded international seaport in Aparri, Cagayan. Learning from Australia’s experience, a Chinese-owned company with alleged links to the People’s Liberation Army ably secured a long-term lease for the strategic port of Darwin in the Northern Territory;
- Allowing the PN and PCG to occupy Grande and Chiquita Islands at the mouth of Subic Bay, to prevent Chinese “investors” from using it to monitor naval and merchant traffic entering SBMA;
- Closing down the POGO facilities at the former Island Cove in Cavite, which is uncomfortably located just across the PN Naval Shipyard in Cavite City, and is located astride a major road network linking the Southern Tagalog region to the seat of the national government; and,
- Protecting Filipino businesses with huge investments in China, and our migrant workers working in the mainland and Hongkong, from being used by China as “pressure points” for economic coercion. The recent statements of a Filipina multibillionaire, whose company has a significant footprint in mainland China, is a case in point.
However, the preponderance of PLA-N, CCG, and militia vessels operating in the WPS limits our available options to counter its tactics at sea. Perhaps, one way is to improve our “naval presence” in the WPS by redeploying other PN and PCG vessels from other parts of the archipelago; increasing POL (fuel) funding to sustain longer sea patrols; reforming the entire “ship maintenance and repair policy eco-system;” and building a joint ship repair facility catering to both PN and PCG for the “economies of scale.”
With the expected delivery of the Bhramos missile batteries and the looming acquisition of multi-role fighters that can hopefully carry anti-ship missiles, the Armed Forces (AFP) can address any potential threat arising from the PLA-N. However, against the CCG and the militia vessel, we can draw lessons from Ukraine’s successes against the Russian Baltic Fleet and the “sea denial” tactics of the Houti rebels in the Red Sea in the use of cheap drones. Perhaps, this can be developed and sustained locally using 3-D printing technology.
We may have to tone down our expectations from our alliance with America. It is politically distracted and logistically exhausted by the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. The Israeli-Hamas War has also exposed social issues, which could impact next year’s presidential elections.
Given the current trajectory of China’s maritime ambitions in East Asia, the country may have to study the possibility of an alternative “collective defense mechanism,” initially with Japan, to form a “bulwark of democracy for East Asia.” However, our foreign policy and national security elites may need to consider the “unthinkable,” which is working around our “One China Principle” in setting up a cooperative arrangement that includes Taiwan.
In the end, restoring “sea control” over our EEZ is essential before Filipinos can properly exercise their sovereign rights. But this effort should be synchronized with the country’s diplomatic, information, and economic approaches in dealing with China. – Rappler.com
Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong (Ret.) is currently Professor of Praxis at Ateneo School of Government. He was formerly the Vice Commander of the Philippine Navy.