Philippines Fishing Boats Stand Up To China

By James Stavridis (Bloomberg) Tensions are rising in the South China Sea, but this time it’s not the US and China squaring off. The disagreement is between the Philippines and China, countries with deeply conflicting claims over chunks of the massive body of water.

The problems stem from China’s long-standing assertion of sovereign control over essentially the entire South China Sea, which stretches from the coast of mainland China, north to Taiwan, east to the Philippines, south to Malaysia and Indonesia, and west to Vietnam. It contains vast fishing grounds and large oil and gas reserves. Over a third of the world’s commercial shipping goes through the South China Sea. The US, the United Nations, countries on its shores and most of the world object to Beijing’s insistence that it a Chinese lake.

The latest disagreement between China and the Philippines centers on fisheries. Beijing operates far-ranging fishing fleets made up of hundreds of ships ­— complete with floating processing plants and extensive storage capacity. They are protected by armed escorts from the Chinese coast guard and maritime militias, allowing them to operate largely with impunity in areas other nations claim — particularly the Philippines, whose 200-mile exclusive economic zone, granted by the UN Law of the Sea treaty, gives them control of the areas around the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. Chinese claims were adjudicated by the international court of arbitration in The Hague and soundly rejected in 2016.

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Most recently, the Philippine Coast Guard discovered a 1,000-foot floating barrier around the Scarborough Shoal; it had been installed by China and was guarded by Beijing’s coast guard. It was designed to block Filipino fishing boats from the shoal. The Filipinos successfully removed the barrier early this week. It was hardly a complex military operation: The Philippines released a video showing a diver with nothing more high-tech than a mask, snorkel and knife.

Yet it led to escalating rhetoric from both nations: The Philippines warned it would remove any future barriers by force, while a Chinese official called the episode “nothing but a farce that entertains itself.”

While Beijing hasn’t responded militarily, it certainly has the capacity to do so. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has more warships than the US Navy, and has used them aggressively throughout the South China Sea over the past several years.

Also Read: Philippines Sees Resurgence Of Chinese Ships In Disputed Waters

The US, meanwhile, has orchestrated a series of “freedom of navigation” patrols. These consist of US and allied warships (from Britain, France and Australia, among others) maneuvering through waters that Beijing claims, most notably the Taiwan Strait. China’s warships have become increasingly assertive in responding, at times cutting directly in front of US destroyers — essentially road rage at sea.

The Chinese are also incensed by the way the president of the Philippines, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, is marking a return to normal relations between Washington and Manila, following a difficult era when the mercurial Rodrigo Duterte led the country. Marcos’s government is permitting US military forces access to several bases on the northern island of Luzon, just a few hundred miles from Taiwan. He has also stopped talk of ending the long-standing “status of forces” agreement between Washington and Manila, and set up additional military-to-military cooperation between the two treaty allies.

Related book: 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

The US is also working hard in the broader region: to bring better harmony between South Korea and Japan; to align the so-called Quad of the US, Japan, Australia and India; to provide nuclear submarine technology to the Australians; to open new embassies on small island nations in the Pacific; and to strengthen US bases in Guam, South Korea, northern Australia and the Japanese island of Okinawa. All of this is anathema to Beijing.

The big danger here is not cable-cutting by Filipino divers ­— it is the potential for a miscalculation that leads to an explosive conflict between US and Chinese forces. Washington needs to think how its actions translate in Beijing. The Chinese see a strategy of US encirclement, which they believe will lead to containment — a word that has an ominous context from the Cold War. They see the US building an extensive nexus of bases along the Pacific Rim, and using the freedom of navigation patrols essentially to connect the dots.

Given China’s perspective, the US Navy needs to be very careful to avoid a ship-to-ship or aircraft confrontation. We can do this best by building a set of mutually agreed protocols on behavior and de-escalation with the Chinese, much as we had with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The US can pursue such an agreement through State Department negotiations.

In the absence of such rules, the US should be extremely cautious in how it operates warships in the vicinity of Chinese counterparts. Use of capabilities such as fire-control radars, active sonar transmission, or opening and closing the torpedo bay doors, all of which can be detected by the Chinese, is a bad idea. Cutting closely in the path of Chinese warships should be avoided as well, or we may face the sort of cowboy ship handling we saw from a Chinese destroyer in the Taiwan Strait last summer.

Also Read: Philippines Urges Fishermen to Remain at South China Sea Shoal Held By China

The US also needs a plan to deter the large naval militias and Chinese coast guard vessels. Here, our regional allies and friends can be very helpful by working alongside our warships in freedom of navigation patrols. And in shallower waters, the US Coast Guard should deploy to carry out training and exercise missions with local friends, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. Most Americans probably don’t know the Coast Guard operates far away from domestic waters. When I commanded US Southern Command, I watched those superb forces drilling with navies from across Latin America and the Caribbean on counternarcotics, counterterrorism and humanitarian missions. In the Pacific, they might operate out of Guam or Okinawa.

The spat over Scarborough Shoal may die down, but the underlying tensions are likely to increase this fall and winter, in the lead-up to Taiwan’s national election in January. The US should continue working closely with allies, partners and friends in the region to create deterrence, even as we find a way to make channels of communication with Beijing as open as possible.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired U.S. Navy admiral, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group. He is the author most recently of “To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision.” @stavridisj © 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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