No let-up in Beijing’s coercive tactics in South China Sea : The Tribune India

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No let-up in Beijing’s coercive tactics in South China Sea

The Philippines is considering a new law on sovereignty to augment deterrence and pushback.

No let-up in Beijing’s coercive tactics in South China Sea

Making a statement: The Filipino strategy is to underline that the SCS is not China’s alone. Reuters



Maj Gen Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Military Commentator

From the window of my hotel room overlooking Manila Bay, I can see Filipino fishing boats in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), which the Chinese consider a part of the South China Sea (SCS) under their 10-Dash Line claim. Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels routinely intrude into the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (PEEZ). A new Chinese law authorising the impounding of encroaching vessels for 60 days without a trial has not been promulgated, though a 2021 law authorises the CCG to open fire at foreign vessels. These measures constitute coercion to prevent the Filipino Coast Guard from replenishing its outpost in Sierra Madre. A US landing ship tank grounded 200 miles from its shores in 1999 to declare sovereignty over the Second Thomas Shoal after the Chinese occupied the Mischief Reef and later seized the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. In 2016, the Philippines won an Arbitration Court award that rejected China’s claim under the 10-Dash Line, but Beijing has scoffed at the ruling. India is fishing in troubled waters with the sale of BrahMos missiles and by offering support to the Philippines.

The Filipino strategy is to underline that the SCS is not China’s alone, like Beijing insisting that the Indian Ocean is not India’s only. It is considering a new law on sovereignty to augment deterrence and pushback. But balancing economic relations with China with territorial sovereignty is vital. The WPS, like the rest of the SCS, is rich in oil, gas, minerals and fish. The June 17 incident — at least eight others have been witnessed since 2022 — involved ramming, water-cannoning and boarding of Filipino vessels by CCG sailors brandishing swords, spears and pick-axes. Eight Filipino sailors were injured, including Jeffrey Facundo, who lost his thumb. Manila newspapers are agog with hair-raising headlines about the incident, with The Manila Times carrying Facundo’s picture minus his thumb on the front page. Since June 18, it has been carrying articles with provocative headlines: ‘Philippines is under attack’; ‘Chinese treachery requires a recalibrated response’; ‘courage in the face of intimidation’; ‘prospects of a Chinese sea invasion’. The killing of one Filipino is a red line to invoke the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) with the US. But confusion prevails over the interpretation of the incident. On June 27, President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr said the Philippines “must do more” than protest, having already lodged 100 protests and an equal number of demarches. “It is not an armed attack, no gunshots were fired,” he said. The Chinese tactics of medieval assaults with lethal instruments are reminiscent of the Galwan clash in eastern Ladakh in June 2020.

While Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin tried to defuse tensions, calling it a misunderstanding and an accident, Defence Secretary Gilbert Teodoro described it as an aggressive use of force. At the East-West Centre International Media Conference in Manila (June 24-28), which I attended, Filipino Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo said, “No country can claim the entire SCS,” adding that a bilateral consultative mechanism on the SCS was due in July to evolve confidence-building measures as the code of conduct deliberations were inordinately delayed.

US Ambassador to the Philippines Mary Carlson, speaking after Manalo, said the US had urged China to cease harassing Philippine vessels in its EEZ and resolve disputes by international law, adding, “We see our partners being bullied in their backyards.”

Meanwhile, US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell called the destabilising action in the SCS ‘worrying’. On June 28, NSA Jake Sullivan shared concerns about China’s dangerous and escalatory actions with his Filipino counterpart Eduardo Ano, reaffirming US commitment to Philippine security. India noted on June 27: “We oppose destabilising unilateral action to change the status quo by force or coercion,” the language it uses in commenting on its dispute with China along the LAC. The Americans have increased their presence in the Philippines, with nine military bases having deadly Typhon missile systems.

The Chinese are pursuing the Blue Dragon strategy of pushing their sovereignty over the EEZ of some ASEAN nations (Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Indonesia) through intimidation and fear. Except for the Philippines, others have chosen discretion as the better part of valour and relied on trade and economic relations. Chinese spokesperson Mao Ning said: “The US should stop the Philippines’ provocative actions and take practical actions to safeguard peace and stability in the SCS. The Philippines has contravened the agreement and used construction material for the grounded warship.”

A senior editor present at the conference, preferring anonymity, said the Philippines had three options: status quo, escalation to invoke the MDT, and dialogue. He feared dialogue, which I endorsed for maintaining status quo to replenish Sierra Madre, as Beijing insists that it be bilateral while Manila wants it under the ASEAN ambit. Sharing the Galwan experience, I advocated retaliation: the use of equipment short of firearms to inflict injuries. The army was mainly a counter-insurgency force, which had succeeded in reducing the terrorist population in Mindanao and Luzon from 25,000 during Marcos Sr’s era to 1,500 today. He commended India for the sale of three batteries of anti-ship BrahMos missiles worth $375 million in 2022 that are deployed at Luzon and will cover the Scarborough Shoal seized by China.

Four PLA Navy warships, three CCG vessels and 13 other ships that constituted the armada in the June 17 incident left the area the next day. However, on June 24, the world’s largest coastal ship, CCG 5901, appeared in PEEZ; on June 30, the Chinese deployed the aircraft carrier Shandong. The Chinese are unlikely to be deterred, but are the Americans ready to invoke the MDT for a tiny Filipino shoal? Maintaining international pressure is essential to ensuring the Chinese do not control all of the SCS. Still, the Chinese are one up for now.

#China #Philippines


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