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Chinese Coast Guard vessels fire water cannons towards a Philippine resupply vessel Unaizah May 4 on its way to a resupply mission at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. REUTERS/Adrian Portugal

Chinese Coast Guard vessels fire water cannons towards a Philippine resupply vessel Unaizah May 4 on its way to a resupply mission at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, March 5, 2024. REUTERS/Adrian Portugal

China’s Ax-Wielding Coast Guard Tests Limits in South China Sea

Total Views: 2566
June 25, 2024

By Philip J. Heijmans (Bloomberg) —

The latest South China Sea clash saw China’s coast guard wielding axes and a Philippine sailor lose his thumb in an escalation that underscored Beijing’s willingness to see how far it can push Manila — and its allies in Washington. 

The Philippines Armed Forces called the June 17 moves by China — which included hurling rocks and using knives to puncture an inflatable craft trying to resupply its forces — a “brutal assault” and said the Chinese sailors acted like pirates. The US State Department said China’s actions were “reckless” and threatened regional peace and stability. 

But that was as far as the public response went, with neither the Philippines nor Washington seeking to exacerbate a crisis that has been building for years. 

For now, at least, Manila appears to be exercising more caution. 

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. told soldiers in a speech afterwards that he was “not in the business to instigate wars.” The government’s executive secretary, Lucas Bersamin, initially said the whole episode was “probably a misunderstanding or an accident” and said the country would give advanced notice of such missions in the future, a move seen as appeasing China’s demands.

Philippines Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro quickly walked back Bersamin’s comments, vowing the country wouldn’t publish its plans to send resupply missions to a decrepit World War II-era ship grounded at Second Thomas Shoal. And video footage showed the collision was no accident. 

But the incident and officials’ subsequent remarks sowed doubt over Manila’s stance and sparked debate over how long it can push back on China without more support from an American ally distracted by wars in Europe and the Middle East.

“China’s escalating violence reflects Beijing’s confidence the US will do nothing more than make another strong statement,” said Carl Schuster, a former operations director at US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center. “I suspect President Marcos also realizes that the US support is limited. So with little hope of US support he has to find a way to reduce tensions.”

China was unbowed, sticking with its claims to a huge swath of the South China Sea despite an international tribunal striking down that view. 

“It is our territory,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told reporters on Monday. Manila “should go back on the track of negotiating with China and safeguard the peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Following the incident, the US issued a statement reminding Beijing that an armed attacked was grounds to trigger the mutual defense pact it has with the Philippines, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored the US’s “ironclad commitments” under the treaty during a call with his Philippine counterpart. 

The Philippine president has made clear what his red line is, saying earlier this year that the death of a Philippine service member by “an attack from any foreign power” would prompt him to invoke the terms of the defense treaty. President Joe Biden echoed that position in a meeting with Marcos and Japan’s prime minister in Washington. 

Last week’s incident fell short of that, though it also appeared to be the type of situation that could quickly escalate into a wider conflagration. In video of the clash, a Chinese rigid-hulled inflatable boat rams into and on top of a Philippine vessel. Navy Seaman Jeffry Facundo told a Philippines Senate committee that his thumb got caught under the Chinese vessel’s keel, causing his injury. 

China insisted its actions were lawful. 

The incident underscores a perennial issue in the decades-old alliance as Washington weighs its own interests against the risk of a conflict with China. In recent years, Beijing has exploited its rivals’ reluctance to risk open war to assert clearer control over contested territory. 

Without more assertive backing from Washington, the Philippines stands little chance of intimidating the Chinese vessels that swarm and harass ships that try to make their way to contested reefs and islands. It’s a strategy they’ve honed against nations from the Philippines to Vietnam. Boasting the world’s largest navy, Chinese vessels have few peers beyond the US in a waterway critical to global trade. 

“The Filipinos’ behavior is predictable in making an outcry, and so on and so forth, but the point is are they determined to challenge China — to stand and have a conflict? I don’t think so,” Zhou Bo, a retired senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, said in an interview. 

“And are they sure that the United States would definitely come to their aid should there be such a conflict?” he added. “My gut feeling is the United States would not like to be involved in conflict with China in the South China Sea because of the Philippines.”

Sierra Madre

Tensions over the World War II-era ship known as the BRP Sierra Madre have been escalating for years as Chinese vessels use water cannons to repeatedly blast Philippine ships trying to supply troops stationed there. With the ship rusting and in a state of advanced disrepair, disagreement has centered around whether Manila is covertly attempting to repair it, something China has repeatedly said it wouldn’t allow.  

A retired Philippine navy official indicated that the country has, in fact, carried out minor repair work on the ship in the past, including replacing steel plates, installing electrical materials and applying protective paint. 

Last week’s clash and the relatively muted response has prompted some soul-searching in the Philippines. Rommel Ong, a retired rear admiral in the Philippine Navy, said his government’s strategy lacked coherence and that the latest incident has stoked perceived divisions among the rank and file. 

“The public could end up losing the trust and confidence in the military,” Ong wrote in an essay published Monday in Rappler.

Others say Beijing is learning from each incident just how far they can go in their bid to have free sway over the region.

“Beijing is confident DC will make no substantive response to PRC aggression,” said Schuster, the former operations director at US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, using an acronym for China. “Expect more violence in the months ahead.” 

© 2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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