When the Philippine Coast Guard spotted more than 200 Chinese fishing boats in the contested Julian Felipe Reef in March 2021, defense and foreign affairs officials swiftly responded to the Chinese incursion. Missing from the early stages of the standoff was the country’s leader. While President Rodrigo Duterte later backed his ministers’ firm position against China, he also declared that the two countries would settle the standoff peacefully. Renato Cruz De Castro of De La Salle University in Manila analyzes what Duterte’s reaction, or lack thereof, means.
Duterte hosted Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2018: The president's appeasement strategy has so far failed to produce substantial economic returns (Credit: Presidential Communications Operations Office)
On March 20, 2021, Philippine National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced the presence of around 220 blue-hulled Chinese fishing vessels moored in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef, known internationally as the Whitsun Reef. According to Lorenzana, the Philippine Coast Guard had seen and reported the presence of the vessels, allegedly manned by the Chinese maritime militia, as early as March 7 to the National Task Forces for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS).
National security adviser Hermogenes Esperon, who chairs the interagency body, initially observed that this huge number of fishing vessels might engage in “possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safety of navigation.” The NTF-WPS changed its earlier assessment when it became apparent that the fishing vessels were manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, and despite clear weather at the time, the Chinese fishing vessels massed at the reef showed no actual fishing activities and had their full white lights turned on at night.
Lorenzana issued a statement declaring that the Philippines is ready to defend its national sovereignty and protect the country’s marine resources. He called on the “Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights, and encroaching into our sovereign territory.” The minister warned the Chinese that the Philippines will “uphold its sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea”.
The following day, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin filed a diplomatic protest with China’s embassy in Manila, which immediately rejected it, asserting that the flotilla was not manned by Chinese maritime personnel but was comprised of ordinary fishing vessels harboring in the reef to avoid inclement weather. It added that “any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritations”. In Beijing, a foreign ministry spokeswoman reiterated the embassy’s positions, referring to the Julian Felipe Reef by its Chinese name, Niue Jiao. She stated that Chinese fishermen had been fishing in the waters near the reef for a long time and claimed that it is part of the Spratly Islands that fall within the nine-dash line that China regards as the extent of its territory. Locsin, meanwhile, caused a sensation when on his personal Twitter account he used a four-letter expletive to call on China to get out of the area.
Navigating the gray
According to Simularity, a US-based geospatial technology company, the Chinese fishing vessels have been anchored at the reef since December 2020. According to satellite images, the ships have neither moved nor done any fishing. They have just remained anchored and tied together. While varying from day to day, the number of ships has remained about the same since last December. These observations reflect the Chinese strategy of claiming submerged land features by swarming disputed waters with a huge flotilla in defiance of other countries’ diplomatic actions or maritime law enforcement efforts.
Filipino military officers and diplomats viewed the gathering of a large number of Chinese fishing vessels in Julian Felipe Reef as a prelude to so-called gray zone operations similar to what China carried out in Mischief Reef in 1996 and again in Scarborough Shoal in 2012. In reaction, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana ordered the immediate deployment of additional naval ships to strengthen the country’s maritime sovereignty patrols in the disputed waters. AFP spokesperson Marine Major General Edgard Arevalo, meanwhile, declared that the Philippine military would protect and defend the nation’s rights to the rich fishing grounds.
The buildup of Chinese fishing vessels in the Julian Felipe Reef could potentially not only erode the Philippines’ control of the what it calls the West Philippine Sea, it could also unravel the appeasement policy towards China which the Duterte administration has been pursuing since 2016. The aim of president’s approach has been to promote bilateral relations that would result in major infrastructure and investment projects within the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But the strategy has yet to produce substantial economic returns, and Filipino officials remain skeptical about the viability of developing major infrastructure projects, considering the geopolitical risk arising from the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Going against the tide
During the early stages of the standoff, President Duterte was nowhere to be seen. The only indication that the chief executive was concerned about this matter was when presidential spokesperson Harry Roque revealed that Duterte had raised his concern over the sighting of the Chinese fishing boats to the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, when the two met on a social call at the presidential palace. According to Roque, Duterte made it clear to the envoy that he would protect the Philippines’ sovereign rights and uphold the historic 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, in favor of Manila’s petition under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) against Beijing’s claims over the contested waters.
On April 5 – three weeks after Lorenzana’s announcement – Roque asserted Duterte’s support for the defense secretary’s demand for China to withdraw its remaining fishing boats in the Julian Felipe Reef. He also mentioned the president’s September 2020 speech delivered virtually to the UN General Assembly, in which he affirmed the arbitral ruling. According to Roque, Duterte hoped that the friendly relations between China and the Philippines would lead to a peaceful resolution to the standoff.
Three days later, in a statement released by his spokesperson, Duterte made his first direct comment on the issue, saying that the Philippines would continue to try to resolve the matter through “diplomatic channels and peaceful means”. He added that the differences between both countries would not define their bilateral relations. The conciliatory tone was contrary to Lorenzana’s stern stance. It was oddly amicable despite the Chinese Embassy and foreign ministry’s belligerent pronouncements. The statement ended with Duterte expressing his belief that “friendly relations between the Philippines and China will result in the peaceful resolution of this impasse.”
The following week, in a national address, Duterte asserted that “there is no way we can get back the West Philippine sea without any bloodshed”. The Philippines cannot possibly win a bloody war with China, he warned. The president also alleged that the Philippines surrendered its claims surrender its claims during the 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off, while China kept control of the disputed waters because it did not retreat. This questionable statement implied that the actions of his own government and military could trigger a conflict with China because they lacked legitimacy and the Chinese effectively controlled the South China Sea – that efforts to drive the fishing vessels away could be construed as dangerous, provocative, illegal and futile.
Old friends, new woes
At the onset of the stand-off between the Philippines and China, in a phone call with Locsin, American Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the applicability of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty to the reef showdown. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called Lorenza to assure his Philippine counterpart of Washington’s support, noting that the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and its escorts were operating in the South China Sea. The NTF-WPS issued a statement that the Philippines appreciated the backing of its partners who adhere to international law and observe the rules-based international order.
A few days later, however, through his spokesperson, Duterte once again weighed in. He delivered a scathing rebuke of the US, doubting whether the Philippines could count on its ally in case of a full-blown conflict with China. The following day, the president appeared on television to bear his grudge against the Washington, declaring that Filipinos should not depend on the US for help. He maintained that he would not go to war with the Chinese, insisting that he considered China a “good friend”.
But even worse was yet to come. On May 5, Duterte declared that the 2016 arbitral ruling was nothing more than a piece of scrap paper. He noted that, while he had acknowledged the judgement that legally rejected China’s nine-dash-line claim in the South China Sea, nothing happened. He questioned whether the decision could even be enforced, admitting that in a conflict the country with the stronger military usually prevailed.
On national television, the president’s message to his people and the world was clear: He is clinging on to his China appeasement policy until his term ends in June 2022.The divergent statements and positions emanating from the president, the AFP, the defense and foreign secretaries during the stand-off with China reflect internal divisions in Duterte’s administration. This clash involves key government officials who want to balance China’s growing naval power in the South China Sea, and those who believe that the path to resolving the territorial row peacefully is through diplomacy, economic cooperation, and mollifying Beijing. The latter want to continue the administration’s appeasement policy, while the former are pushing for the government to challenge and even confront the Chinese over their growing naval presence in the South China Sea.
The quarrel led to the administration to pursue a policy of “soft balancing” as reflected by its initial tentative confrontational reaction to the presence of the Chinese fishing boats. Then domestic politics and nationalist sentiment became a factor. The adverse public opinion against China’s maritime activities and the possibility of US involvement forced Duterte to backtrack. The president ended up taking the realist approach, hewing his position to China’s – that the stand-off had to be resolved through a joint bilateral consultative committee and cordial consultations. But with Philippine presidential elections less than a year away, the China issue will be a key issue for debate. In its remaining months, expect the administration to continue its dazed-and-confused approach as it struggles to balance major-power geopolitics with competing political and economic interests on the home front.
De Castro, Renato Cruz. (October 31, 2019) “Blowing Hot and Cold Over the South China Sea”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
De Castro, Renato Cruz. (May 19, 2021) “Duterte Rejects US Assistance During Whitsun Reef Stand-Off”, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic & International Studies, Washington, DC, USA.
Thayer, Carlyle A. (April 18, 2021) “South China Sea: What is at Stake for the Main Players?”, Background Brief, Thayer Consultancy, available on Scribd.
Thornton, Susan. (2020) “Averting Conflict in the South China Sea: Steps to Restore Rules and Restraint”, The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, USA.
Renato Cruz De Castro
De La Salle University (DLSU)