Philippines’ new assertive policy in South China Sea exposes China’s grey zone tactics

In recent months, the Philippines has emerged to become a prime example of how a small country can face off a larger and militarily stronger nation. The Philippines’ newfound assertiveness vis-a-vis an aggressive China in the disputed South China Sea has exposed the Communist Party of China (CCP)’s bullying and high-handedness in dealing with its smaller neighbors.

Referred to as “assertive transparency”, the Philippines’s new policy consists of boosting national resilience, garnering international support, and inflicting reputational costs on China, with the last aspect an unprecedented strategy. 

In February 2023, when China’s pointed a military-grade laser at Filipino crew members on a patrol boat, which briefly blinded them, the Marcos Jr. government publicized the incident to an international audience. Before this, no Southeast Asian country has ever dare to report maritime skirmishes with China and call out Chinese pugilism. 

Using video and photography as a key element in its new strategy, the Marcos Jr. government is showing to the world China’s gray zone operations, which the CCP denies. The Philippine coast guard has been publicizing aggressive actions by China in the disputed South China Sea, calling out Chinese propaganda and igniting international condemnation that has put Beijing in the defensive and under the spotlight.

In light of the laser-pointing incident, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. made a formal protest to China’s ambassador to the Philippines and later said the Filipino military has shifted its focus from tackling Muslim militants and insurgents and other internal threats to external defense amid longstanding South China Sea territorial disputes.

“I’d like to emphasize that the best way to address Chinese ‘gray zone’ activities in the West Philippine Sea is to expose it,” coast guard Commodore Jay Tarriela said, alluding to China’s use of civilian fishing and research vessels to conduct military operations to prevent military responses from rival claimant states as well as from the U.S.

The Philippine coast guard’s role in publicizing Chinese aggression “allows like-minded states to express condemnation and reproach which puts Beijing in a spotlight,” Tarriela said. “Chinese actions in the shadows are now checked, which also forced them to come out in the open or to publicly lie.”

Tarriela said Manila’s exposure of the laser-pointing incident forced China, including its ambassador to Manila, to explain its position when questioned about the incident at news conferences.

By making public unedited coast guard videos and photographs of such Chinese actions, “we can once again reshape public opinion to weigh things objectively based on facts and not just propaganda,” Tarriela added. 

Following the laser-pointing incident, the U.S. State Department responded by saying that China’s “dangerous operational behavior directly threatens regional peace and stability” and “undermines the rules-based international order.” 

Furthermore, the U.S. reinforced a warning that it would defend the Philippines, a treaty ally, if Chinese forces attacked Filipino forces, aircraft and ships in the South China Sea.

Philippines is exposing China’s grey zone warfare. Photo credit: iStock/ grynold

On January 15, Manila’s military chief Romeo Brawner declared that his country will develop islands in the South China Sea that is part of the Philippines’ sovereign territory, to make them more habitable for troops, amid frosty ties with Beijing. 

Besides the Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin, the Philippines occupies eight other features in the South China Sea, and deems them part of its exclusive economic zone. The features entail Thitu island, the biggest and most strategically crucial in the South China Sea. Known locally as Pag-asa, Thitu lies about 300 miles west of the Philippine province of Palawan.

“We’d like to improve all the nine, especially the islands we are occupying,” Brawner said, following a command conference led by Marcos Jr. at the military headquarters.

In light of this, the Philippine military wants to bring a desalination machine for troops living aboard a derelict warship that was deliberately grounded on the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 to guard the country’s sovereignty, he said.

The Philippine military also plans to acquire more ships, radars and aircraft as the country shifts the focus to territorial defense from internal risks, Brawner added. 

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, which is a conduit for the maritime transport of goods in excess of US$3 trillion annually. Apart from China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have clashing claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Around thirty years after the Philippines ended a vast U.S. military presence that started with the capture of the archipelago from Spain in 1898, American troops are again returning to the country. 

Marcos Jr, who assumed power in 2022, has pivoted to Washington and pushed back against China, undoing his predecessor’s pro-China policy, and expanding the U.S.’s military influence in the country under their Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 as well as a pact called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Former president Duterte took office in 2016, shortly before a United Nations (UN)-backed tribunal decreed that China’s “Nine Dash Line” claims to the South China Sea, which overlap with the exclusive economic zone claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia, had no legal basis. 

Duterte downplayed the ruling, putting aside talks on the issue after proclaiming a “separation” from the U.S. and pivoting towards China. He also threatened to end the U.S.-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement, which serves as the legal foundation for Washington’s bilateral military cooperation in the Philippines, and to suspend joint military exercises and freeze U.S. access to Philippine bases under the EDCA.

Duterte turned to China to obtain financing for infrastructure projects as part of his “Build Build Build” program. China pledged US$6 billion in official development assistance, $3 billion in loans, and $24 billion in investments to the Philippines. 

However, as the end of Duterte’s term drew near, only a small fraction of that financing and investment had materialized. A big chunk of the promised fund did not come through. 

Enrique Manalo, the Philippines’ foreign secretary, told the Al Jazeera news outlet that while Duterte’s approach helped Manila established dialogue with China, it did not resolve Sino-Philippine territorial disputes.

“It enabled us in many ways to create mechanisms for dialogue. And at least gave us a better opportunity to exchange views and discuss critical issues, including the South China Sea. So, it did create the venue for that … But that being said, the problems remain,” he said in an interview in July 2023.

“The (Chinese) presence is still there. We had harassment incidents before and they’re still continuing and the danger is that they most likely, they continue. The danger is that they could escalate to something even more. So that’s something which we’re also concerned with,” he said. 

“That’s the challenge for us and we have raised it to China on many, many occasions… but the situation remains the same.”

Hence, the Philippines’s decision to bolster military ties with the U.S. and increase the number of EDCA sites was “purely for our own national interests or aimed at enhancing our own security,” Manalo said. 

Additionally, such a decision would particularly help the Philippines in the event of natural disasters, Manalo added. With regards to the possible scenario of China invading Taiwan, and whether the bases would be mobilized, he said the bases are not designed with that goal in mind.

“That would depend on whatever we agree on with the situation. It’s difficult to comment on it now,” Manalo said. 

“But just to say that they are – at the moment, that they are designed, that the main priority there is to be in a position to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. And then any use or type of equipment or even type of personnel that depends on prior agreements between the Philippines and the United States.”

Some of the EDCA sites are in Palawan, near the contested Spratlys. Other sites face north towards Taiwan, the self-governed island that Beijing claims as its own territory to be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary.

China is claiming almost the entire South China Sea. Photo credit: iStock/ Leestat

Marcos Jr. has also obtained a pledge from U.S. president Joe Biden that American troops will come to the Philippines’ defense in the event of a Chinese attack on Philippine armed forces in the South China Sea, something Washington had been hesitant to commit to earlier.

“It is only natural for the Philippines to look to its sole treaty partner in the world to strengthen and to redefine the relationship that we have and the roles that we play in the face of those rising tensions that we see now around the South China (Sea), Asia Pacific and Indo-Pacific region,” Marcos told Biden during a summit in Washington, DC, in May 2023. 

Although Marcos Jr’s moves have mainly been prompted by his country’s South China Sea territorial dispute with China, he has also voiced worries about the impact of a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, saying that “it’s very hard to imagine a scenario where the Philippines will not somehow get involved”.

Thus far, Manila’s new “name and shame” strategy does appear to have put Beijing on the defense, perhaps owing to the element of surprise in such a strategy. 

However, the degree to which China is willing to weaponize trade and investment to counter the Philippines’ pushback in the South China Sea remains unclear. 

Plagued with its current economic woes, China may unlikely wish to portray itself as an increasingly hostile and unappealing trade and investment partner when it is actively trying to attract foreign investment. 

Beijing may opt not to weaponize trade with Manila in order to maintain its status and reputation as a champion of common development in the Global South to tackle a U.S.-dominated world order. The fact that the Philippines has not encountered any major negative economic impact since the South China Sea flare-ups in 2023 so far can testify to the limits of China’s gray zone coercion.

Photo credit: iStock/ BeeBright

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