Analyst: China militia near Pag-asa shows prospect to take island
MANILA, Philippines — China’s maritime militia around Pag-asa Island (Thitu) in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) shows a possibility that the island could be seized with “little difficulty” if China opts to, an analyst has warned.
“This is a straightforward intimidation tactic – to interrupt Filipino maritime traffic in very close proximity to Thitu,” said Alexander Neill, Shangri-la Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Dozens of Chinese maritime militia, characterized as fishing vessels but are not actually fishing, have been swarming around Pag-asa on a daily basis. The Western Command reported in a security briefing last week that Chinese fishing vessels summed up to over 600 for the first quarter of 2019.
The highest number of vessels recorded in a single day was at 87 last February 10. Most of these vessels are near the three sandbars between Pag-asa and Zamora (Subi) Reef.
On Monday, the military clarified that there were only over 200 vessels sighted in total, based on the bow numbers.
Kalayaan Mayor Roberto del Mundo said last month that the Chinese fishing vessels had been blocking their path on their way to the sandbars, a traditional fishing ground. The military played down his statements.
Neill said China pushed its boundaries on Pag-asa because of the “inability of Filipino forces to react to probing tactics by Chinese vessels, and on the political front by President Duterte who has warmed to China and is prepared to dismiss the threat by China to Philippines territory.”
President Rodrigo Duterte has played down the sea dispute with China in exchange of economic opportunities.
‘Eyes and ears’
According to Neill, the maritime militia serves as “eyes and ears” for the People’s Liberation Army.
“They will be monitoring, under the PLA’s direction, Filipino activity and relaying this information back to Subi,” he said.
“It is also a warning that China has the potential to take the islands with little difficulty, should they choose to,” he added.
While China is capable of taking over Pag-asa, the analyst said this would be an act of war and could trigger response from the United States, a treaty ally of the Philippines.
“The probing of the air and sea space around Thitu and the saturation of the area with the maritime militia is likely a response to the upgrading of the Thitu airfield,” he said.
Pag-asa is the biggest of the nine outposts occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly Islands. It is home to about a hundred civilians and a small batch of troops.
A construction of a beaching ramp on the island is currently underway to allow the transport of bigger construction materials for the long overdue repair of the airstrip.
“China will be very uncomfortable with the possibility of a challenge to its presence on Subi Reef. So the pace and scale of Chinese activity will be commensurate to activities to upgrade and defend Thitu island, in particular an improvement in any capability to mount regular air patrols from Thitu,” he said.
While the US is a non-claimant in the South China Sea, it has deployed military ships and aircraft to promote freedom of navigation and challenge China’s territorial claims.
Neill said the US could lend a hand to the Philippines by conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) at sea and air within 12 nautical miles of nearby Subi Reef.
“The US could also offer assistance through its defense relationship with the Philippines in creating detection and deterrence capabilities on Thitu Island,” he said.
With the ongoing situation on Pag-asa, he said the code of conduct (CoC), which the Asean and China are currently working on, would likely be irrelevant there.
“It is unlikely that China will recede from its presence around the sandbars – its aim is to have a permanent and sustained presence there. I don’t think the CoC will have any bearing on China’s behavior near Thitu,” he said.
Negotiations on a CoC in the South China Sea by Asean and China to set an agreement on the set of norms and to avoid conflict are currently underway. China hopes the negotiations would be concluded by 2021.
All is not too late for the Philippines though, as it still has a chance to push back, according to Neill. He then suggested some options:
- Publicize China’s activities in the air and at sea near Thitu.
- Support the government of Palawan in solidarity with the Filipino fishing community.
- Record and publicize examples of intimidation against Filipino vessels and fishermen.
- Broadcast transmissions from the Chinese maritime militia.
- Release figures and images of the maritime militia near the sandbars.
- Cooperate with friendly nations to create better maritime domain awareness around Thitu.
- Fortify Thitu with weapons systems aimed to deter invasion.
- Raise its concerns in international multilateral and diplomatic forums.
- Emphasize and insist on China’s adherence to a Rules-Based International System – specifically the July 12 2016 Arbitration outcomes.
- Demarche the Chinese ambassador in Manila whenever maritime militia incursions occur. /kga
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