‘Paint the dragon and dot the eyes’


AGGRESSIVE and dangerous maneuvering of Chinese government vessels in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) against Philippine boats will likely continue and even increase for the foreseeable future as China believes that any foreign presence in waters it holds as its own is an affront to its sovereignty.

This was emphasized by the US Department of Defense (DOD) 2023 Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, which was released on October 19.

“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] believes that international presence within the SCS [South China Sea] is a challenge to its sovereignty,” the executive report read.

A Chinese militia vessel, top, and Philippine coast guard vessel BRP Cabra approach Second Thomas Shoal, locally called Ayungin Shoal, at the disputed South China Sea on Sunday October 22, 2023.

And this is probably why China is not budging an inch, despite US condemnation and threats to get involved should the situation escalate to an armed attack against Philippine vessels, aircraft or armed forces, in the aftermath of the October 22 incident where aggressive maneuvering of Chinese vessels hit and damaged two Filipino vessels conducting a routine resupply mission to the detachment aboard the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.

In fact, despite constant assurance from the US about its “iron-clad commitment” to its Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the Philippines, China, per the DOD report, continues to deploy its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China Coast Guard (CCG) and civilian ships to maintain its overwhelming presence in the WPS.

“Throughout 2022, the PRC deployed PLAN, CCG and civilian ships to maintain a presence in disputed areas, such as near Scarborough Reef (Bajo de Masinloc) and Thitu Island (Pag-asa Island), as well as in response to oil and gas exploration operations by rival claimants within the PRC’s claimed ‘nine-dash line’” it added.

Capitalizing on its massive military and naval might, China in 2022 also conducted several provocative actions to demonstrate its superiority in the region.

“During 2022, the PRC conducted multiple coercive actions [against] the Philippines in the SCS including cutting the tow line of a Philippine Navy [ship], executing dangerous maneuvers in close proximity to Philippine vessels; reportedly reclaiming several unoccupied land features in the SCS, which the Philippines noted…contravenes the Declaration of Conduct on the South China’s undertaking on self-restraint and the 2016 Arbitral Award,” the US DOD report further read.

Taiwanese vulnerability highlighted

IN the same year, China highlighted Taiwan’s vulnerabilities, which it considers a renegade province, by amplifying “diplomatic, political and military pressure” against the islanders.

“The PLA [People’s Liberation Army]’s increased provocative and destabilizing actions in and around the Taiwan Strait included ballistic missile overflights of Taiwan, sharply increased flights into Taiwan’s self-declared ADIZ [air defense identification zone] and a series of major military exercises near Taiwan,” the report read.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, during the 20th Party Congress in 2022, repeated the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s long-standing position that “China seeks peaceful unification with Taiwan but would never renounce the use of force as an option.”

Highlighting this option, the PLA conducted a series of large-scale military exercises aimed at Taiwan in August 2022 and April of this year.

“The PLA practiced elements of each of its military courses of action against Taiwan during its August 2022 large-scale military exercise aimed at pressuring Taiwan, and again in April 2023 in response to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen’s transit of the United States,” it added.

In a related development, the US said that it has documented over 180 instances of PLA coercive and risky air intercepts against American military aircraft in the SCS.

This took place between the fall of 2021 and the fall of 2022.

“Over the same period, the PLA has conducted around 100 instances of coercive and risky operational behavior against US allies and partners, in an effort to deter both the United States and others from conducting lawful operations in the region,” the US DOD report stressed.

Examples of the PRC’s coercive and risky operational behavior against US and allied aircraft have included lasing; reckless maneuvers; close approaches in the air or at sea; high rates of closure; discharging chaff or flares in front of, or in close proximity to, aircraft; and other actions.

This behavior contravenes flight safety protocols and the international maritime rules of the road, and increases the risk of a major accident, incident, or crisis, including the potential for loss of life.

US responds to Ayungin Shoal collisions

MEANWHILE, in relation to the October 22 collision instigated by Chinese ships, American President Joe Biden, in a statement, said the US would be forced to intervene should China attack Filipino ships in the SCS.

“Just this past week, the PRC vessels acted dangerously and unlawfully as our Philippine friends conducted a routine resupply mission within their own exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea,” Biden said at the White House on Wednesday, October 25, during a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

He also reiterated that US defense commitment to the Philippines is “ironclad.”

“Any attack on Filipino aircraft, vessels, or armed forces will invoke our MDT with the Philippines,” Biden warned.

WPS collision a Chinese escalation

AS this developed, National Defense Secretary Gilberto C. Teodoro Jr. on October 23 said China’s recent action is a serious escalation of the illegal activities conducted by the Chinese government in the WPS and a complete disregard of any norm or convention of international law.

He added the incident took place within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, “which China has no jurisdiction, authority or right to conduct any operations.”

“The Philippine government views the latest aggression by China as a blatant violation of international law. China has no legal right or authority to conduct law-enforcement operations in our territorial waters. We are taking this incident seriously at the highest level of government,” Teodoro said.

Not looking for a war

IN separate interviews on October 25, the DND chief said the Philippines is not looking for any conflict or war with China but is merely protecting its maritime territories from continued Chinese encroachment.

He added that protecting the country’s territory is accepted under international law.

Teodoro also said that China’s expansive territorial claims that encroach on the WPS and the country’s other territories are contrary to the “norms of international law.”

Also, misinformation being spread by China claiming that the Philippine presence in the WPS is illegal, is being taken seriously by the government.

‘`You know that is why the government under President [Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.] is taking this seriously because this is an affront to our territorial integrity and it’s a ridiculous assertion of international law or a revision of international law to suit their expansionist ends,” Teodoro stressed.

Also, the DND chief believes that the Philippines will likely get more security partners and allies following the incident.

“I believe it will invite more countries that have an interest in freedom of navigation to participate not only in joint sails but in other security engagements with the Philippines,” he added.

Teodoro said these engagements could include capability upgrades for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, intelligence exchanges, and other defense military-to-military and defense-to-defense cooperation agreements.

Image credits: Alevtyna Pogorielova | Dreamstime.com, Armed Forces of the Philippines via AP