Philippines told to stand up to increasing Chinese aggression

SECURITY experts on Wednesday urged the government of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. to stand up against escalating Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and engage in united response with allies.

“The best way to address Chinese gray zone activities in the West Philippine Sea is to expose it,” Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Jay T. Tarriela told a forum, referring to areas of the sea within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

He said the Philippine Coast Guard has been trying to remove the shades of gray as far as Chinese maritime activities are concerned by showing these to be either black or white.

“The Philippine Coast Guard’s persistent presence in patrolling the contested waters while at the same time documenting China’s activities allowed the international community to criticize their actions that violate international law and the international rules-based order,” said Mr. Tarriela, who advises the Coast Guard commandant on maritime security.

Chinese operations in the South China Sea have become “more and more clearly hostile and aggressive,” Jay L. Batongbacal, head of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, told the forum organized by Strabase ADR Institute.

More than 40 Chinese boats were still roaming near Thitu Island, the Philippine Coast Guard said on Tuesday, weeks after it accused its Chinese counterpart of endangering the crew of a resupply ship at Second Thomas Shoal in an incident that has stoked long-running diplomatic tensions over China’s expansive claims in the waterway.

A People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel, a China Coast Guard ship and at least 42 suspected Chinese maritime militia boats were still roaming about 4.5 to 8 nautical miles from Philippine-occupied Thitu Island, which it calls Pag-asa, it said.

In his speech, Mr. Batongbacal urged the government to prepare responses to threats and activities undertaken by China against Filipinos at sea.

“We should not be afraid to consider proportional and reasonable responses,” he said. “We should not shy away every time they make threatening moves and then we retreat for fear of provocation.”

“There should be no gray area anymore. We need to begin erasing the gray zone. We need to begin acting and standing up for our lawful maritime rights,” Mr. Batongbacal said.

“This is the only way we can move that forward. Otherwise, we might as well retreat and give up everything.”

He said the government should consider working with allies and engage in a collective deterrence against Chinese aggression.

“We should not be doing everything on our own only,” he said. “We should also consider talking closely with and coordinating with allies and friends so we can engage in collective deterrence.”

“We should demonstrate to China that its gray zone activities and various other shenanigans will no longer be effective because there will be a united and collective response from all fronts wherever they may be,” he added.

Raymond Powell, Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation fellow urged the Marcos government to engage the public, get the help of independent analysts, storytellers and the media and use commercially available maritime data to deter so-called Chinese gray zone activities.

“Exposure is key to deterring and building resilience against them,” he told the forum. “Governments control the best gray zone information, but face barriers to release it.”

The solution is to “light up the maritime gray zone” by giving access to commercially available maritime data to credible independent analysts and media, Mr. Powell said.

Embedding media reporters in coast guard vessels to help monitor, document and disseminate all gray zone activities in the South China Sea could also work, he added.

Mr. Tarriela said the impact of publicizing Chinese activities in the waterway could be measured by the reaction of the international community.

“We can see it from how the United States, Japan and Australia express their support and willingness to develop the capability of the Philippine Coast Guard and also the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the forum.

“Through the publication of unedited real photos and videos of the Philippine Coast Guard, we can once again reshape public opinion to weigh things objectively based on facts and not just propaganda,” he added.

Stratbase President Victor Andres C. Manhit said the Marcos government should work with like-minded states through joint patrols and maritime domain awareness.

“The Philippines and other Indo-Pacific states must engage in strategies that will ultimately change China’s behavior to be symbiotic with the internationally established rules-based order,” he said. “China’s activities within Philippine territory, driven by its expansionist ambitions and militarization, cannot be allowed.”

These activities include swarming their fishing and militia vessels in Philippine territory, blocking resupply missions, tailing scientific vessels and pointing military-grade lasers,” Mr. Manhit said. “We cannot let this aggression continue.”

The expected response to an emerging threat is to try to balance it, said Renato C. de Castro, an international studies professor at De La Salle University.

“To limit China’s ability to conduct grey zone operations against the Philippines requires Manila, Washington, Canberra and Tokyo to convey strong signals of commitment for mutual assistance through security agreements, troop deployments, arms transfers and multinational exercises, thereby reducing the Philippines’ sense of insecurity,” he told the forum.

He also said a surveillance system must be developed to monitor Chinese gray operations. “This requires the development of a region-wide surveillance network that can detect, identify and monitor Chinese vessels that are positioned for grey zone operations in the West Philippine Sea. — Alyssa Nicole O. Tan