There are fears a mass incursion of Beijing’s secretive ‘Maritime Militia’ into a South China Sea reef may lead to the construction of yet another artificial island fortress.
“China is gaslighting us,” Philippines senator Risa Hontiveros declared Wednesday. “China is making it appear as if we are hallucinating. We are tired of their attempts to twist the truth for the sake of advancing their self-interests. China has stolen from us, and now she is lying to us.”
Australia, the United States and Japan have added their voice to international protests over the breach of Manila’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Some 220 “fishing boats” were counted inside Whitsun Reef on March 7, with 183 still there on March 19. Philippines authorities report little change since then.
The trawlers are parked within the arc of the strategically positioned reef.
Their blue and white hulls are in pristine condition.
They’re paraded in neat rows.
They’ve been stationary for weeks.
The weather has been great.
And they’re not fishing.
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“The sheer number of ships in the middle of the open sea has naturally raised urgent questions, as it was obvious that they were not there to fish,” says Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs director Dr Jay Batongbacal.
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Manila at the weekend issued a formal diplomatic protest to Beijing over their “intimidating” presence. But China’s embassy in Manila rejected any suggestion the boats were anything other than fishing vessels seeking shelter from storms.
But suspicions remain high.
Their presence follows a well-established pattern of behaviour.
“The reclamation of reefs and conversion of artificial islands were always preceded by massive destructive fishing efforts as if to extract whatever valuables there were from the area before burying it with sand and paving it with concrete,” Dr Batongbacal warns.
Outspoken Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr on Wednesday asserted that Whitsun Reef was “not an island; should not be made one by reclamation in legally ludicrous attempt to turn it into one generating an EZZ that swallows Palawan (a large island that forms part of mainland Philippines)”.
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But the Chinese embassy in Manila denies the trawlers have a hidden agenda.
“There is no Chinese maritime militia as alleged,” a statement issued by the embassy asserts. “Any speculation as such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation,” it said in a statement. It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner.”
But the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) is an officially recognised government organisation.
Chairman Xi Jinping, who is in direct command of the unit, made a public tour of its vessels in 2013. And the trawlers photographed at Whitsun Reef bear all the hallmarks of being these political weapons.
“Indeed, the condition of the vessels themselves, practically brand new, not bearing cargo, and showing almost no wear and tear indicates that since their commissioning, they may not have even been used for fishing at all,” Dr Batongbacal notes.
That, and the boats’ distinctive profiles, has convinced international analysts that they are part of the Communist Party-controlled paramilitary unit.
“Crewed by well-salaried full-time personnel recruited in part from former PLA ranks, they appear not to bother fishing — the better to focus on trolling for territory,” says Professor Andrew Erickson of the US Naval War College.
“It has been a normal practice for Chinese fishing vessels to take shelter under circumstances,” China’s embassy in Manila declared, despite there having been blue skies and calm seas in the region in recent weeks. “Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation. It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner.”
It’s since hardened its stance.
The US embassy on Tuesday expressed support for Manila. It noted that Beijing “uses maritime militia to intimidate, provoke and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region.” An embassy spokeswoman said the US had been monitoring Chinese vessels in the area “for many months in ever-increasing numbers, regardless of the weather”.
Japan issued a diplomatic statement expressing its opposition to any action that destabilises the South China Sea status quo. And Australia has also expressed its support for Manila.
Ambassador Steven Robinson tweeted that Canberra was “concerned about destabilising actions that could provoke escalation.”
“Australia supports an #IndoPacific region which is secure and inclusive,” he wrote. “The South China Sea — a crucial international waterway — is governed by international rules and norms, particularly the Unclos.”
This has prompted China’s embassy to unleash its “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, warning off all nations “not a party to the South China Sea issue”.
“Fanning flames and provoking confrontation in the region will only serve the selfish interests of individual country and undermine the regional peace and stability,” a tweet by the embassy proclaimed.
Whitsun Reef (Julian Felipe Reef to the Philippines and Niu’e Jiao to China) is a shallow coral reef that is usually only exposed at low tide. But in recent years, a 100-metre long dune has grown as a permanent presence.
But its position makes it something of an international crossroads.
“As the easternmost feature in the Spratlys’ multi-nationally occupied Union Banks, it is strategically situated astride busy sea lanes — an ideal base for monitoring and operational dispatch,” says Professor Erickson.
Whitsun Reef sits at the centre of a triangle of China’s Spratly Islands fortresses, formed by Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs.
“Whitsun Reef being added to China’s array of artificial island bases would be a significant escalation and worrisome development,” Dr Batongbacal says. “A new facility may eventually allow the establishment of a central core or principal node for command and control, well protected by the three largest military bases.”
So far, no dredging vessels have been sighted.
But Beijing could use the presence of so many militia trawlers to block any attempts to prevent such activity.
“Thus whatever exactly is happening at Whitsun Reef at the moment, it’s a good time to look at China’s well-tested approach to eroding neighbours’ sovereignty and international rules and norms in the South China Sea — and what can be done to counter it,” Professor Erickson adds.
Last year, Beijing designated the reef as part of Nansha Qundao, one of two new arbitrary “administrative regions” dividing the South China Sea into “Sansha City” – a district council for a non-existent city.
Militia trawlers, Professor Erickson says, have been portrayed in Chinese media as armed with machineguns and carrying firearms for their crews. But these are not their primary weapons.
“The ships themselves are the main weapon,” he writes.
“Far larger and stronger than typical fishing vessels from the Philippines or other South China Sea neighbours, their comparatively robust hull designs — with additional rub strakes welded onto the hull’s steel plating aft of the bow, and — typically — powerful mast-mounted water cannons, make them powerful weapons in most contingencies, capable of aggressively shouldering, ramming, and spraying overmatched civilian or police opponents.”
Once faced with Coast Guard or military opposition, these trawlers can fall back on their fishing guise.
“Their supposed civilian status would come to the fore, especially for propaganda purposes,” Professor Erickson writes. “Against the US Navy or other capable foreign forces, they would become … human shields forcing consequential choices for rules of engagement.”
Such legal and diplomatic “Grey Zone” tactics have proven effective for Beijing in recent years. But they are generating a growing international backlash.
“If China wants to be treated as a responsible power, it has to be honest and open about all three of its Armed Forces at sea — the Navy, Coast Guard, and Maritime Militia — not conceal key vessels as “civilian” fishing boats”.
“WE STAND OUR GROUND”
“The Chinese government’s coercive and destabilising actions in the West Philippine Sea and the South China sea are acts that belie its pronouncements of friendship and goodwill and affinity with the Filipino people,” Senator Richard Gordon warned this week.
“I would urge our good neighbour, the Chinese government, in particular, to adopt policies and actions that contribute to peace and stability in the region and not create an impression of a bullying neighbour.”
It’s a message being heard in the halls of power throughout South-East Asia.
Particularly because Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has been compliant with Beijing’s demands since taking office in 2016 in return for infrastructure funding and boosted trade.
Such compliance doesn’t appear to be paying off.
“Manila must resume its original policy of standing by international law, reinforce its alliance with the US and strategic partnerships with middle powers like Japan and Australia, and deepen friendships with other external parties such as the UK and the EU,” says Dr Batongbacal. “It must seriously engage with other Southeast Asian claimants within ASEAN to work out a proper and co-ordinated policy on the South China Sea.”
While President Duturte has “expressed concern” over Whitsun Reef with Beijing’s ambassador, his military Chief of Staff ordered naval vessels to the reef to “increase our visibility”. Meanwhile, Mr Locsin has declared Manila is determined not to repeat past mistakes.
Nearby Mischief Reef, now a massive Chinese artificial island fortress, began as an apparently simple shelter for fishers. But it escalated. Fast.
“In Mischief Reef a Philippines war vessel confronted a Chinese,” Locsin tweeted. “(But a) US President told both to stand down. Only ours did. Next time such a confrontation happens, we stand our ground or rather water not yielding even a nautical iota”.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel