Last month, the Philippine National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea reported that more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels were anchored at the disputed Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea, known as Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines.
The task force released astonishing photographs, which showed clusters of enormous fishing trawlers at anchor and tied together in neat rows. Needless to say, the ships were not engaging in commercial fishing activity; they belong to China’s “maritime militia.”
Beijing’s flimsy official explanation is that the vessels are temporarily seeking shelter from inclement weather. This is patently ridiculous, given the time that the ships have been loitering in the area.
An analysis of satellite images published by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative on Wednesday last week showed that Chinese vessels have been at the reef at least as far back as February last year. Since then, the numbers have fluctuated, culminating in a peak of 200 vessels last month.
Beijing uses the maritime militia, which is trained by Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy personnel, to further its strategic goals in the South China Sea by engaging in “gray zone” activities that sit just below the threshold of military conflict. At the Whitsun Reef, Beijing appears to have adopted a tried-and-tested “boiled frog” strategy: slowly raising the temperature of the water in the pot until it is too late for the frog to jump out.
Chinese fishing trawlers first drove away smaller Philippine fishing boats from the area, and then gradually built up a permanent presence at the reef. A minimum number of Chinese vessels would likely remain at the reef until fait accompli is achieved and the waters have become de facto Chinese territory, without a shot having been fired.
The failure of former US president Barak Obama’s administration to come to the Philippines’ aid during a crisis at the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) in 2012 hangs heavily over the current standoff at the Whitsun Reef. At the time, Washington had brokered a deal between Beijing and Manila for each side to withdraw their vessels from the feature, which Taiwan also claims.
However, after the Philippines withdrew its vessels, China moved its vessels back in and assumed control of the feature. Washington did nothing.
This had two negative effects. First, it emboldened Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to embark on a massive land reclamation project: An estimated 1,300 hectares of land on seven features in the South China Sea. In turning a blind eye, Washington ceded control to Beijing of a major international waterway through which passes nearly half the world’s commercial shipping, and regional nations, including Taiwan, will have to live with the consequences for decades. Second, Washington’s inaction led the Philippine government to conclude that it had no choice but to throw its chips in with China. The US is now on the cusp of losing a key regional ally.
In stark contrast to the Scarborough Shoal incident, there have been mixed messages from Manila over the Whitsun Reef.
On Monday, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin said that the Philippines “will never give up” its sovereignty over the reef. However, perhaps wary of upsetting Beijing lest it pull the plug on supplies of its Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has explicitly ruled out the use of armed force, praised China as a “good friend” and called for a diplomatic solution.
The Whitsun Reef debacle is a stark illustration of lost US influence in the Asia-Pacific region and the impotence of its conventional defense forces when pitted against unconventional Chinese tactics. Beijing has punched several large holes in the US’ costly defense umbrella. US defense planners must urgently rethink their entire model of deterrence or face losing all credibility with Washington’s regional allies.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has over the past few months continued to escalate its hegemonic rhetoric and increase its incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The US, in turn, has finally realized how its “strategic ambiguity” is increasingly wearing thin. Similarly, any hopes the US had that the PRC would be a responsible stakeholder and economic player have diminished, if not been abandoned. Taiwan, of course, remains as the same de facto independent, democratic nation that the PRC covets. As a result, the US needs to reconsider not only the amount, but also the type of arms
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Last month, the Philippine National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea reported that more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels were anchored at the disputed Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea, known as Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines. The task force released astonishing photographs, which showed clusters of enormous fishing trawlers at anchor and tied together in neat rows. Needless to say, the ships were not engaging in commercial fishing activity; they belong to China’s “maritime militia.” Beijing’s flimsy official explanation is that the vessels are temporarily seeking shelter from inclement weather. This is patently ridiculous, given the time that