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The Geopolitics Of The Whitsun Reef Incident – Analysis

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The media has been flooded with the contretemps between China and the Philippines over the massing of Chinese boats at Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea.  Even The New York Times prominently featured a story on it. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/03/world/asia/swarms-ships-south-china-sea.html  Each side has their arguments.  But more important than who is right is what the contest reveals about the political forces at work in the region.

Indeed, what should have been just a tempest in a teapot became dangerous because of the geopolitical forces at play. The overall geopolitical context is the across – the – board struggle between the U.S. and China for dominance in the region.  The U.S. is trying to contain China politically and militarily and is seeking allies or partners to help it do so.  China views this as “encirclement”. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202104/1220091.shtml

The Philippines figures prominently in the US strategy because it is a US ally on the front line of the soft power dimension of the US-China struggle.

Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has tilted toward China and away from its close political and military ties to the U. S. But this flap has helped the Philippines opposition push the Duterte administration to take a somewhat more aggressive stance vis a vis China.  This is much to the advantage of U.S. interests.  Indeed, it may even help the pro-US opposition win the Presidency in next year’s election. If that happens anti-Duterte pundits like Greg Poling of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies hope that  “The No1 goal of the alliance [will then] be to get EDCA [the agreement that implements the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT)] moving, so US and Filipino forces can operate jointly from Philippine bases” [against China] https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3127946/south-china-sea-will-whitsun-reef-dispute-come-between-beijing 

On the basis of information and terminology supplied by U.S. analysts, the Philippines declared that the vessels were crewed by maritime militia and that their intention is to demonstrate China’s illegal historic claim to the waters. https://www.npr.org/2021/03/22/979923065/philippines-calls-on-china-to-remove-massive-fishing-fleet-at-disputed-reefhttps://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/philippines-demands-china-remove-vessels-6-islands-reefs

Some goaded the Philippines and the U.S. to act claiming that their presence is a challenge to the Philippines “and by extension the Americans.” https://www.npr.org/2021/03/26/981668318/chinese-ship-deployment-roils-south-china-seahttps://news.abs-cbn.com/overseas/03/28/21/china-announces-further-military-exercises-in-disputed-south-china-sea  Indeed, Poling urged the international community to “draw a line in the sand” – “now”. text=So%20it’s%20a%20signal%20aimed,the%20latter%20attempt%20to%20intervene.%22&text=%22It’s%20also%20an%20explicit%20warning,boost%20cooperation%20between%20their%20coastguards.%22

Further hyping the situation, Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenza said  “The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea.”  https://www.arabnews.com/node/1837651/world

Already Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. has warned that he will file daily diplomatic protests until the last Chinese boat leaves Whitsun Reef. https://manilastandard.net/index.php/news/top-stories/351311/dfa-vows-daily-diplomatic-protests-till-china-boats-leave-ph-reef.html

Fanning the flames, Philippine media alleged that China’s military “chased”, “pursued”, “drove away”—take your pick—a civilian Filipino vessel carrying journalists for a look at the disputed area. The ‘facts’ were hazy but the ‘hype’ was real. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/04/10/asia-pacific/philippines-china-navy-ship/#:~:text=The%20U.S.%20and%20Philippines%20have,exclusive%20economic%20zone%20on%20Thursday.

The Philippines government is investigating the incident.

A breakdown in China-Philippines relations would be a geopolitical windfall for anti-Duterte forces and US interests. Some in the Philippines have even speculated that the incident was being manipulated with that in mind. https://www.manilatimes.net/2021/04/07/opinion/columnists/topanalysis/reef-row-us-plot-in-its-re-pivot-to-asia/860862/

The US State Department quickly reassured the Philippines of its support. It declared that “The US stands with our allies, the Philippines, regarding concerns about the gathering of PRC maritime militia vessels near Whitsun Reef …. which undermines peace and security.”  https://www.stripes.com/news/pacific/us-sounds-support-for-philippines-in-dispute-over-loitering-chinese-fishing-vessels-1.667047 Perhaps at US urging, the UK, Canada, Australia and Japan also expressed concern about rising tensions and destabilization of the situation. https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-philippines-china-southchinasea-idAFKBN2BN0ZF  So what was initially a spat between the Philippines and China over a remote reef in the Spratlys quickly drew in the U.S. and its allies thus upping the geopolitical stakes. 

Such hype enhances the possibility of a China-Philippines clash of naval or coast guard vessels that could drag the U.S. into the fray through the US-Philippines MDT. Under the Treaty the parties are bound to respond to an armed attack on either of them  including  that  __on the island territories under [either’s] jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/phil001.asp  The U.S. has pointedly declared that ‘Pacific’ includes the South China Sea. The Philippines hinted that it might invoke the Treaty but it does not require the U.S. to automatically provide military backup. https://apnews.com/article/south-china-sea-philippines-china-manila-9e7a5306ad0f6fb52ec20fdb331c06ca

What makes this situation particularly dangerous is the history of China-US -Philippines interactions in the South China Sea.  In 1995 the U.S. failed to act when China undertook construction on the Philippines’ Mischief Reef. At the time, China claimed they were building shelters for fisher folk. Despite continuing Philippine protests, it is now a Chinese military outpost protected by Chinese naval vessels. Then in 2012, China and the Philippines had a standoff over control of Scarborough Shoal.  China coastguard and maritime militia faced off with Philippines coastguard ships and a naval vessel.  Worried that it might have to get involved militarily, the U.S. brokered a mutual stand down. The Philippines complied but China did not and now de facto controls the feature and its 12 nm territorial sea.  

There is considerable pressure on the U.S. to ensure that China does not do the same or similar at Union Banks/Whitsun Reef.

Although it was probably scheduled before hand, the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike force has now entered the South China Sea on a mission to “demonstrate our commitment to the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region”. https://news.usni.org/2021/04/06/theodore-roosevelt-strike-group-now-operating-in-south-china-sea However the Philippines has urged restraint on all sides so as not “to aggravate the already tense situation.” https://mb.com.ph/2021/04/07/dnd-calls-for-restraint-amid-presence-of-us-carrier-strike-group-in-wps/ Despite its reassurances, the U.S. is unlikely to risk going to war with China to back up Philippines’ claims or provocative actions over remote disputed rocks in the South China Sea.   But if Chinese forces attack Philippines forces, all bets are off. Also previously scheduled, on Sunday, China’s aircraft carrier the Liaoning sailed into the northern South China Sea shadowed by the US Navy. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202104/1220779.shtmlhttps://www.scmp.com/print/news/china/diplomacy/article/3129122/us-navy-warns-china-were-watching-you-destroyer-shadows

So far the U.S. has only offered strong words and “capacity building surveillance support”—whatever that means. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3127946/south-china-sea-will-whitsun-reef-dispute-come-between-beijing  Former Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario – a leading pro-US opposition voice – proposed that Washington and Manila undertake “joint patrols” in the area. That would put the U.S. at risk of a direct clash with China and is unlikely to be taken up by the U.S.   But a scaled down version of their annual Balikatan joint exercises will run over the next two weeks. https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/3129132/philippines-us-start-two-week-joint-military-drills-amid

So far Duterte has demurred and left the war of words to his defense and foreign affairs chiefs.  According to his spokesperson Harry Roque he sees “no need to use force”. https://www.bworldonline.com/no-need-to-use-force-vs-moored-chinese-ships-says-duterte/   He elaborated that “we will continue to resolve the issues on Julian Felipe through diplomatic channels and through peaceful means.’ https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/dispute-04062021160930.html  His ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana said there was “no need to panic” and that “the situation would improve in April”.  https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3127946/south-china-sea-will-whitsun-reef-dispute-come-between-beijing

But not all are mollified. Indeed, Locsin tweeted “Irrelevant whether we possess commensurate military power to meet the challenge; we will not yield but die—or trigger World War 3. Not a bad outcome; living is overrated. Honor is all.” https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1414787/dnd-chief-china-intent-on-occupying-west-ph-sea#ixzz6rDGyqpEW This statement may well have been laced with sarcasm but it did portray the sentiments of the extreme opposition.

The concentration of Chinese boats in the Philippines- claimed EEZ—whatever their purpose—and whether legal or not —has played into the US narrative that China is expansionist, aggressive and cannot be trusted. It has even encouraged European “upholders of the international order”—like the UK, France and Germany—to publicly support the U.S. attempt to contain China. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3128162/spratly-islands-diaoyu-bay-bengal-storm-brewing-asia-pacific

A major factor saving the situation from deteriorating into open conflict may be that no nation wants to be seen as the aggressor and the one that provoked it.   But doing nothing will make the players look weak. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3127184/spratly-islands-are-chinese-boats-baiting-fish-or-philippines

Thus U.S. and China –egged on by militarists–are playing a game of “military chicken” in the South China Sea. https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/04/02/could-the-u-s-and-china-face-an-unintended-blowup-in-the-western-pacific-in-the-biden-years/  It is in this geopolitical context that the Whitsun Reef incident was particularly worrying.

Another version of this piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3129413/south-china-sea-us-china-rivalry-leaves-whitsun-reef-and

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

One thought on “The Geopolitics Of The Whitsun Reef Incident – Analysis

  • April 26, 2021 at 8:45 pm
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    Chinese and US hawks need to take a page from marine scientists in the region who are calling for cooperation and shared marine biota data. There should be no national borders in science and devising cooperative marine-based programs and identifying available tools on technical and environmental matters is far easier than dealing with intractable territorial claims. The region desperately needs confidence-building measures and not a war of words or scaled up military drills. Professor Valencia has repeatedly called me out for not being a realist. All right, I agree that it may be too much to hope that South China Sea nationalism will disappear like the atolls at high tide, but shared science data may inspire public good and political will from governments to foster multilateral marine science surveys. The ecological heart of the sea is at risk if we fail to act.

    Reply

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