Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has finally abandoned his usually accommodating approach to China to protest the continuing stalemate concerning the Spratly islands outpost of Thitu, where the Western Command of the Armed Forces reported that as many as 275 Chinese vessels have been circulating.
“Lay off the Pag-asa,” Duterte said, using the Filipino name for Thitu, “because I have soldiers there” as the US Navy was also ratcheting up the tension.
Duterte has tried mightily to appease Beijing by not enforcing the landmark 2016 international court decision that ruled against Chinese claims in the South China Sea and by not trying to take back Scarborough Shoal, taken by the Chinese in 2012 although it is clearly in Filipino waters.
While Manila protested the continuing presence of Chinese vessels around Thitu and Sandy Cay, Duterte lamented that the Philippines has few options other than to tell its troops to “prepare for suicide missions.”
But now he seems to have changed his tune: while stressing his desire to deal with China in a friendly way “if an island occupied by Filipinos is threatened things would be different.”
The president’s blast came at a time when Washington seems to be hardening its own stance in the South China Sea. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck a belligerent tone in a speech in Manila underscoring America’s support for the 1951 treaty of mutual defense: “We have your back,” he proclaimed.
This week, evidently to demonstrate there is muscle behind the words, the USS Wasp (above) paid a port call in the Philippines. In plain sight was a flight deck crammed with 10 F-35B fighters, the Marine Corps’ vertical takeoff and landing version (VTOL) of America’s newest stealth fighter.
The Wasp, named for a US carrier sunk by the Japanese in WWII, began life as an amphibious assault vessel, and it is still so designated. It was extensively modified to handle the VTOL aircraft, turning it into a kind of light aircraft carrier. It is permanently based in Japan.
Thitu is the second largest natural island in the South China Sea and, unlike Scarborough Shoal, has been occupied by about 100 Filipinos since the 1970s, half military and the other half civilian.
Over the years the facilities on the island, especially the aircraft runway, had been allowed deteriorate. Manila launched a project to improve the facilities, especially the runway, which unlike China’s fortified islands, would still not service high-performance jets, assuming that the Philippines had any high performance aircraft.
Beijing reacted to this by “swarming” the waters around ‘Thitu and nearby Sandy Cay with, at one point, the flock of “maritime vessels,” the term for Chinese “fishing boats” that can be marshaled by the Chinese military any time it wants to intimidate somebody.
The fishing boats were backed up at a distance with a regular navy vessel and a Chinese Coast Guard vessel. Manila said it was temporarily suspended construction work on the island.
Elsewhere in East Asia, there were more and subtle signs of a hardening of Washington’s attitude on the South China Sea. Three times this year the Americans have sent armed ships through the Taiwan Strait, when such transits used to be rare.
The Taiwan Strait is international waters and the transit could be considered a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP), but the U.S. has avoided entering the Strait unless it wants to make a political statement.
Beijing showed its irritation by sending two jet fighters across the so-called Median Line, which divides the waters between China and Taiwan. The last time this happened Beijing said it was a mistake. This time they made no such claim.
Taiwan’s president Tsai-Ing-wen condemned the Chinese flight in strong terms that suggested that she was ready to shoot down Chinese fighters if they crossed the Median line again. Whether she would do this is a question.
Washington responded to Beijing’s protest with the same boilerplate language it has used in transiting near China’s newly fortified atolls in the Spratly and Parcel islands: “The US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”
The Taiwan Strait transit was unusual in that of the two vessels, one was a US Coast Guard cutter. It was the first time that USCGC Bergholf, normally chasing drug smugglers in the Caribbean, has been used in a freedom of navigation operation in Asia. The coast guards of China and Japan have played an outsized role in territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas.
Coast Guard vessels have been useful for confrontations in the South China Sea in that they are viewed as less provocative and less threatening than regular navy vessels. China has the world’s largest coast guard with enough ships to station themselves around all disputed islands in both seas with others to spare.
Speaking on a trip to Asia Adm. John Richardson, the commander of the US Navy, said the USN would push back on gray-zone operations such as those around the Thitu island. He also said that the US would view all members of the Chinese maritime militia as de facto military not civilian ships and will treat them as such under the rules of war.
Washington recently sent not one but two destroyers on its latest FONOP mission. This stemmed from an incident last September when a Chinese warship came within 40 meters of colliding with the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer the USS Decatur on another FONOP mission. Usually, the Chinese navy vessels keep their distance.
It suggests that the navy is concerned about another accidental, or accidentally on purpose collision and wants to have backup support nearby. The risks of an incident with the newly obstreperous Chinese navy are increasing.