Last January 22nd, China put into effect her latest coast guard laws, which explicitly authorizes pre-emptive strikes against foreign vessels in waters “under China’s jurisdiction.” Immediately, it raised alarms in the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries, particularly those that have overlapping claims on the Spratly Islands – Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
To allay fears in the Philippines, the Chinese Embassy in Manila told the Philippine government not to worry about the new coast guard law that China claims is “domestic law,” which is common in many countries. Well, the problem is that the South China Sea (SCS) — considered “international waters” by most countries — is claimed by virtue of an imaginary nine-dash line drawn by China to demarcate 90% of the SCS, roughly 1.3 million square miles, as China’s territory. Therefore, all other countries are required to seek permission whenever they pass through these waters. But a UN tribunal ruled in 2016 that the nine-dash line claim had no legal basis, which Beijing rejected.
The new coast guard law emphasizes China’s territorial ownership of the area with a warning that trespassers could be fired upon or prevented from passing through the SCS. The new law also warns that China has authorized her coast guard to demolish other countries’ structures built on reefs and islands claimed by China, which by inference includes the Pag-Asa Island that is occupied by Filipino civilians and a marine contingent. If China proceeds with the destruction of Pag-Asa, that would be considered an invasion since Pag-Asa is a municipal town of the province of Palawan. The Philippines could then invoke the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). But would the US come to the aid of her ally?
On January 23rd, the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier strike group sailed into the SCS to conduct routine operations “to ensure freedom of the seas, built partnerships that foster maritime security.” Well, that’s the diplomatic way of saying, “The US is ready to confront China should she choose to fire upon America’s allies in the region.” But China got the message loud and clear.
According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the US announced plans to integrate her maritime forces, including the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard to counter China’s influence in the SCS.
The SCMP further stated, “The integrated all-domain naval power would counter China, which the US calls the ‘most pressing, long-term strategic threat.’ The strategy, titled Advantage at Sea and published last month, defined the US navy’s objectives as ‘preserving freedom of the seas, deterring aggression and winning wars’.” Thus, “the strategy will formalize ways of countering China’s coast guard, which is used to project Chinese power and assert her claims in the disputed waters,” the news report said.
It’s interesting to note that the US Coast Guard’s (USCG’s) is not under the US Defense Department (DOD) but under the Department of Homeland Security. The reason for the separation is that the US is seeking to expand her “shiprider” agreements with 11 Southeast Asian states to give the US legitimate access to disputed waters of the SCS; thus, making the disputed waters in the SCS subject to the jurisdiction of the US.
Since its inception in 2010, the “shiprider” program is the USCG’s flagship maritime security cooperation program. To counter China, the USCG has conducted exercises with Southeast Asian countries for joint law enforcement operations to counter illegal fishing.
Such cooperation between the US and Southeast Asian countries has been growing steadily, largely over deepening concerns about China’s powerful coastguard fleets, which Beijing has relied heavily on to project power and assert its maritime claims.
“Grey zone” tactics
Chinese Coast Guard ships have played a leading role in several recent “grey zone” activities. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, “grey zone” tactics — often used in the realm of hybrid warfare — are defined as “an effort or series of efforts beyond steady-state deterrence and assurance that attempts to achieve one’s security objectives without resort to direct and sizable use of force.”
They can include a mixture of conventional warfare, irregular warfare, and cyberwarfare with other influencing methods, such as fake news, diplomacy, lawfare, and foreign electoral intervention. Through grey zone tactics, potential adversaries can inconspicuously coerce their targets to serve their interests while avoiding the possibility of large-scale conflict. In other words, it could be anything but open warfare between two or more countries but to the detriment of one.
Last March 2019, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a retired general, questioned the applicability of the MDT in today’s grey zone situations. He pushed for the review of the MDT. He said that the MDT “should have been reviewed when the US bases were terminated in 1992 and we lost our security umbrella.”
Lorenzana noted that two years after the US left the bases, the Chinese “began aggressive actions” on the Philippines’ Panganiban (Mischief) Reef when the Chinese built structures on stilts on the reef. When the Philippines protested, China’s response was that Chinese fishermen needed the structure to rest at night. The Philippines didn’t do anything. But what else could she have done? With no air force and no navy, she couldn’t defend the intrusion.
While it was not an armed attack, it was “aggression just the same and the US did not stop it,” Lorenzana said. Obviously, the US wasn’t interested in getting involved with the Panganiban Reef occupation by Chinese forces. Could it be because of the termination of the MDT? Do you expect the US to come to the aid of the Philippines after the US bases were terminated by the Philippines?
In 2014, China reclaimed Panganiban Reef and built an artificial island on it. China then built air and naval bases on it. Recently, missiles launchers were installed on the island, within striking distance of Manila.
But Lorenzana was confident that China would not invade the Philippines. “The Philippines is not in a conflict with anyone and will not be at war with anyone in the future. But the United States, with the increased and frequent passage of its naval vessels in the West Philippine Sea, is more likely to be involved in a shooting war. In such a case and on the basis of the MDT, the Philippines will be automatically involved,” Lorenzana said. “It is not the lack of reassurance that worries me. It is being involved in a war that we do not seek and do not want,” Lorenzana said.
War with China?
Lorenzana is aware of what transpired during President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to China in 2017. Duterte discussed with Chinese President Xi Jinping the exploration for oil in the mineral-rich Recto (Reed) Bank in the Spratly Islands. “We intend to drill oil there, if it’s yours, well, that’s your view, but my view is, I can drill the oil, if there is some inside the bowels of the earth because it is ours,” Duterte told Xi. Xi responded, “We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.” Whoa!
That must have been a rude awakening for Duterte. He should know that China wouldn’t give an inch for what she claims as hers – legitimate or illegitimate.
In my opinion, the MDT shouldn’t be scrapped. However, it needs to be revised to incorporate “grey zone” situations like what happened in Panganiban Reef. Indeed, the entire South China Sea is one big grey zone and China could at any time use grey zone tactics to expand her territorial claims.
In November 2018, the Philippines and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that obligated both countries to cooperate in the exploration of oil and gas deposits in the SCS. The MOU preserves the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the SCS. The MOU states that China would shoulder the cost of extracting the oil and natural gas deposits and gets 40% of the net proceeds, while the Philippines would get 60% as the sole owner of the oil and gas.
Did the Philippines just avert a potential “grey zone” situation by agreeing to split the proceeds from the joint exploration of the Recto Bank? But knowing China’s modus operandi, what’s stopping her from seizing the Recto Bank in the future since it is still within the nine-dash line boundary that China claims, hence an integral territory of China? It sounds like a “grey zone” to me.