Laser, water cannon, and now a floating barrier – I explain how Manila is mustering the courage to deal with China’s recent “grey zone” tactics.
On September 22, during a routine patrol around the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, referred to as Huangyan Dao by Beijing and parallelly as Bajo de Masinloc by Manila, the Philippine Coast Guard found a 300-metre-long “floating barrier” placed by their Chinese counterpart, which effectively prevented Filipino boats from accessing a rich fishing spot around the aforementioned shoal, lying about 120 nautical miles away from the Philippine coast and about 480 nautical miles away from the Chinese coast, i.e., four times the distance from the former.
The Philippine Coast Guard removed this blockade in compliance with a presidential order on the same. While international law (UNCLOS) clearly recognises Manila’s sovereign rights over all living and non-living resources in the area as part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Beijing refuses to honour or even acknowledge this fact. Instead, it has given shape to its own baseless, overarching claims, seen as a “nine or ten dash line” in Chinese maps, depending on whether the island of Taiwan is included in it or not. Notably, this farcical line covers almost 90 per cent of the entire South China Sea.
Offensive Chinese posturing
The latest incident occurred while ASEAN’s first non-combat naval drills, named the Solidarity Exercise, were about to conclude and just a month after another incident of a large Chinese Coast Guard ship reportedly using water cannon against a much smaller Philippine boat occurred, inviting condemnation from Washington, Manila’s foremost security ally in the region. Eleven years ago, the Scarborough Shoal was the site of a standoff between Manila and Beijing, following the detention of some Chinese fisherfolk by the Philippine Navy for intruding into the area that fell within Philippine EEZ.
Tensions were diffused only after the U.S. brokering a deal, and following this the Philippine Navy pulled itself out from the area, but the Chinese never left the resource-rich lagoon since then. This led Manila to take the course of international arbitration in 2013, which Beijing refused to cooperate, and later it defied an arbitration ruling that came in the former’s favour in 2016. Earlier this year, in February, China deliberately hit a Philippine Coast Guard vessel with a military-grade laser, which even lead to the temporary blinding of some of its crew.
Coming back to the most recent incident of Chinese Coast Guard building a “floating barrier” on Philippine waters, it should be read as the latest in a series of decades-long dispute involving China on the one side and five ASEAN countries, namely Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, plus Taiwan on the other side. With or without a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, which is currently being negotiated between the two sides, China’s overall offensive strategic posturing towards its neighbours can never be expected to turn benign as long as its overarching claims persist.
The recent provocative actions by China fit into the larger frame of expansionist tendencies it has been showcasing throughout the last one decade, both along its land borders and the seas. China is trying to gain maritime foothold bit by bit through the skilful use of its growing military power, stopping short of a war, but remaining coercive, thereby pushing other countries in the neighbourhood into a defensive mode. These tactical moves, lying in the “grey zone” between peace and war, represent a new normal and a serious challenge to the status quo of the current regional security order lead by the United States Navy and its allies.
Augmented U.S. alliance
Earlier in this April, the United States and the Philippines conducted their largest-ever annual military drills, the three-week-long Exercise Balikatan, meaning “shoulder-to-shoulder’ in the Philippine language of Tagalog, with more than 17,600 combined troops participating, including simulated drills of attacks on enemy warships and live-fire exercises performed for the first time. With Beijing in mind, Manila has also given the U.S. a wider access to its military bases under a recently revived defence pact. Alongside strengthening Manila’s defence capabilities, it grants Washington a stronger foothold to counter what it sees as a bigger threat in the broader region – Beijing’s possible invasion of Taiwan.
The Philippines is a major non-NATO ally of the U.S. for the last two decades and the two countries have forged several security pacts in the past such as the Mutual Defence Treaty of 1951, the Visiting Forces Agreement of 1998 and the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement of 2014. At the same time, the Philippines is overlooking the reality of a large Chinese economic footprint in the country, including the disturbing fact that China still holds about forty per cent stake in its national power grid and that Chinese engineers are still working on critical infrastructure projects across the archipelago.
Manila needs economic decoupling, supply chain diversification and new trading partners to reduce its dependency on China and to stamp out the possibility of Beijing weaponising economic vulnerabilities for geopolitical gains, although a distant prospect. In other words, a security strategy alone is inadequate to deal with the challenges posed by China, which calls for a comprehensive one. However, former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte used to follow a policy of accommodating China, looking at the prospect of promising economic ties, even while Beijing continued to exercise its exclusionary policy in the neighbourhood.
Rifts back in spotlight
Tensions have been simmering again since last year with the election of a former dictator’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., as the President of Philippines, who vowed to follow a tough policy in dealing with China. Consequently, U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris visited the Southeast Asian archipelago in November last year, and in return President Marcos Jr. visited the U.S. in May this year, which was in fact the first visit by a Philippine leader to the White House in almost a decade. The visit followed April’s military drills and President Biden reaffirmed U.S. military’s support to the Philippines, describing it as “iron-clad”.
At the same time, President Macros Jr. is also trying to reach out to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, as evident from his recent visit to Beijing in the beginning of 2023, harbouring hopes of an amicable management of disputes. Unfortunately, just weeks later, the laser incident happened, signalling China’s lack of interest to settle disputes any time soon. When it comes to hard security, China is aware of its strengths and also its limitations against the combined might of U.S. and its regional allies. Reinvigorated defence ties with Washington supposedly gave Manila the confidence to stand up to China’s overtly belligerent activities in the South China Sea.
Beijing’s ultimate ambitions for the broader region, i.e., a complete dominance and the expelling of the U.S., can never materialise without solidifying its territorial claims in the neighbourhood in the first place, which subsequently calls for sustained acts of securitisation and militarisation of the region. This can never happen without provoking its Asian neighbours and also without changing the status quo, which would invite the United States and its allies to respond. All these scenarios point to the hollowness of China’s seemingly benign initiatives such as the “Global Security Initiative” and tend to derail its own efforts in projecting itself as a “responsible” great power in the world.