Manila’s policy of setting aside maritime disputes to seek joint development with Beijing has not worked out well for the Philippines, a security analyst said, pointing to China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea.
Huang Chung-ting (黃宗鼎), an assistant research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, was referring to the massing of hundreds of Chinese vessels at the Whitsun Reef since early last month.
The V-shaped reef is in a shallow coral region of the resource-rich Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), which the Philippines says is within it exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and is also claimed by China, as well as Taiwan.
It is at the center of a deepening maritime row between Beijing and Manila, which says it suspects the Chinese vessels were crewed by maritime militia personnel and the incident could be a prelude to a Chinese takeover of the reef.
Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said that at least 10 Chinese vessels were still anchored in the area as of Tuesday last week, from a high of more than 220 last month, despite diplomatic protests and increased patrols.
Huang, in a paper posted on the institute’s Web site on April 15, said that the massing of vessels could be Beijing’s response to the US’ freedom of navigation operations.
The ships could also be on a mission to build structures on the reef or to remove underwater monitoring devices installed by other countries, he added.
The vessels were operating with their ship trackers off and underwater lights on at night, he wrote in the paper.
The response of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration to Beijing in maritime disputes has been softer than that of its predecessor, the administration of former Philippine president Benigno Aquino III, Huang said.
For the Duterte administration, the country’s claims in the South China Sea are negotiable for infrastructure investment, COVID-19 vaccines and other economic benefits from Beijing, Huang said.
Following the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Beijing on oil and gas development in the region in 2018, Duterte lifted a moratorium on petroleum exploration in the waters in October last year, “paving the way for possible joint ventures with China,” Huang said.
“However, the Whitsun Reef incident proved that seeking joint development with China in the SCS [South China Sea] does not lead to the shelving of disputes, but only invites more incursions and aggression from China,” he said.
In a paper published on the institute’s Web site on Monday last week, Huang wrote that the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty failed to deter China from its aggressive actions in the South China Sea, citing an incident on April 8, when a Philippine fishing boat carrying reporters to document the massing of Chinese vessels in the region was chased by two Chinese boats in waters only 90 nautical miles (167km) from the Philippine province of Palawan.
Huang said that treaty’s failure to deter Beijing was due to a lack of will on the part of the Philippine government to resist China, the Duterte administration’s lack of confidence in the US and the failure of the US to say whether the treaty covered attacks on civilians.
“The incursion of Chinese militia vessels into the Philippines’ EEZ and the dislodgement of Philippine civilian vessels by Chinese navy vessels shows the urgency for the US and the Philippines to fill the gaps in their security cooperation under the [treaty],” Huang wrote.
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