March 7 marked yet another day of China’s many incursions in the West Philippine Sea, when more than 200 Chinese vessels were found anchored and lined up along the Julian Felipe Reef that is part of the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Efforts from the Philippine government to address this issue included the filing of diplomatic protests as well as transmitting formal communications with the Chinese Embassy in Manila. However, despite these efforts, the vessels maintained their visibility in the area while there were reports of similar vessels found scattered within the wider vicinity of the West Philippine Sea. Another diplomatic protest was filed after the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) confirmed the lingering presence of at least 240 Chinese Maritime Militia ships in different maritime features in the West Philippine Sea despite repeated and strongly worded calls and protests from both the Department of National Defense and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). The DFA also summoned the Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, to reiterate its demand that China withdraw all of its vessels from the Julian Felipe Reef and other maritime zones of the Philippines.
And while security and foreign policy experts strongly urge the current administration to stop its appeasement policy on China, President Rodrigo Duterte has consistently maintained his silence about China’s incursions.
In a recent virtual town hall discussion organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute under its Foreign Policy Forum, leading security experts discussed and shared their thoughts about China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea and the importance of maintaining a maritime rules-based order. During the discussion, Retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said that China’s continued aggression in the West Philippine Sea violates not only the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but also the UN Charter. If the Philippines continues to downplay these issues, Carpio said that these actions could lead to the collapse of UNCLOS and the start of a maritime order that is shaped by naval guns and the entrenchment of the “might is right” concept.
Liz Derr, CEO and Founder of Simularity, also presented a very striking report on the unoccupied islands and features in the South China Sea within the Philippine EEC. She pressed on the need for the country to find measures and way to be able to create some physical presence “which will prevent foreign countries from occupying more Spratly features and help protect the livelihood and rights of Filipino fishermen to utilize resources within Philippine EEZ.”
It should be noted that China was able to have de facto control over some areas in the South China Sea because of its deliberate reclamation activities as well as sustained presence. Given that removing China’s presence is unlikely, Derr suggested that the most viable option for the Philippines is to claim what is there as stated in the 2016 arbitral ruling.
Additionally, Dr. Chester Cabalza, President of the International and Security Cooperation, emphasized the need for a whole-of-alliance approach to pressure China to align its behavior on a rules-based maritime order and prevent it from exercising its unrestricted aggression and gray zone operations. Through this approach as well, the Philippines may fill in the inherent gaps in terms of limited resources, capacity building and development, and following Derr’s approach, possibly officially marking Philippine territory with physical structures.
This is also a timely opportunity for the Philippines given the convergence of the international community towards the Indo-Pacific. While the “Asian Century” has come, so have the major shifting tides of geopolitics. With China’s rise as a major power, it has become a major disruptor to established and rules-based maritime processes and norms.
The challenge for states like the Philippines is to identify their role in the grander scheme of things by unifying with key allies and partners such as Japan, Australia, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and the ASEAN. If the Philippine government is serious about having a truly independent foreign policy, then it must recognize productive and collaborative opportunities, resources, and partnerships.
The Philippines will never be alone in this battle for the West Philippine Sea. The common vision of democratic-minded states for a free and open Indo-Pacific is a significant step in defending the maritime commons in the region. We should not forget that there is strength in numbers. States have invariably expressed the same concern over China’s alarming behavior in the West Philippine Sea. These countries have reiterated the importance of adhering to the rule of law while reaffirming their support for an international order based on democratic norms and principles.
In the fight to protect our national sovereignty and territorial integrity, the Philippine government must recognize the threat of China’s expansionist agenda in the West Philippine Sea and strategically work with like-minded states through “minilateral” and multilateral alliances. The West Philippine Sea is ours and it is the sworn duty of our leaders and officials to defend it from any foreign threat that undermines the safety and security of our people!
Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the President of the Stratbase ADR Institute.