Review of PH response sought vs China deception in WPS
MANILA, Philippines—The Philippines should not fall for the deception that China is trying to pull off in the West Philippine Sea through the gray zone campaign, to carry out illegal territorial expansion in the area, security experts said on Wednesday (June 23).
China’s coast guard and militia vessels are at the forefront of enforcing Beijing’s baseless claims in the South China Sea. Because these actions on the surface technically don’t merit conventional military response, the China government strategy to grab territory has been classified as “gray zone.”
Coast guards, or “white hulls,” are civilian in nature, and are generally employed to enforce maritime law. The use of gray ships or navy ships are seen as escalatory while sending white ships are viewed as less intimidating.
But China coast guard ships control Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, a common fishing ground located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and are also deployed elsewhere, especially in other important features in the West Philippine Sea which are also inside Philippine EEZ.
There have been several well-publicized reports of China Coast Guard unarmed attacks on Philippine ships and fishermen in the West Philippine Sea, which is part of the South China Sea that belonged to the Philippines.
For Jay Batongbacal, director of Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at University of the Philippines, China coast guards should be treated like any other Chinese government vessels.
“We should re-examine our posture and attitude toward China Coast Guard,” Batongbacal said.
“They should be regarded as agents of state and treated as such, regardless whether they are gray or white and our responses should be based on that,” he said at an online event hosted by Pacific Forum.
He said China coast guard is different from other coast guards as it is one of the biggest in the region and has ships larger than average navy ships of other countries. The China coast guard, he said, is part of China’s military structure.
Another type of China’s gray zone tactic in the West Philippine Sea is the use of militia vessels, which swarm Philippine features, intimidate Philippines ships or just accompany China coast guard vessels to enforce China’s illegal claims.
Last March, over 200 Chinese militia ships were spotted anchored near Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, located within the Philippines’ EEZ, prompting the Philippine government to step up patrols.
In a statement that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana described as a blatant lie, China insisted that the vessels were civilian and are for fishing and not part of a maritime militia.
Dr. Krista Wiegand, director of Global Security Program at Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee, expressed objections to the use of the same strategy by the Philippines by the deployment of militia vessels.
“I know there are talks of auxiliary units. But I think that’s somewhat a slippery slope because you’re getting close to what China is doing,” she said at the same forum.
“I understand the attractiveness of this but I think we have to be consistent with maritime law, consistent with the best practices, and respond to China in the best practical way and not act as China is acting,” she said.
The Philippine Navy said in 2020 that it was considering the use of Filipino fishing militias in West Philippine Sea to serve as force multipliers.
Batongbacal said the Philippines needed to come up with strategies or standard operating procedures in responding to China’s gray zone operations in the West Philippine Sea.
There should also be real time information about what is going on in far flung areas at sea that would be immediately available to Philippine agencies and to the public.
“It is only through exposing these activities that they can be made to step back eventually and neutralize them,” Batongbacal said.
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