China’s action’s amid ‘Balikatan’ calls for rethink – experts

China’s actions amid ‘Balikatan’ calls for PH-US rethink – experts

/ 05:32 AM May 02, 2024

Soldiers conduct an airfield seizure exercise as part of the US-Philippines “Balikatan” joint military exercise at San Vicente Airport in Palawan province on Wednesday

Soldiers conduct an airfield seizure exercise as part of the US-Philippines “Balikatan” joint military exercise at San Vicente Airport in Palawan province on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (Photo from Agence France-Presse)

MANILA, Philippines — The latest water cannon attacks by China Coast Guard (CCG) ships against Philippine vessels in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) while Manila and Washington carried out their large-scale military exercises called “Balikatan” were intended by Beijing to test their alliance, according to maritime security experts.

The two treaty allies should reexamine their current approach to dealing with escalating Chinese aggression, they said on Wednesday.


In Tuesday’s confrontation near Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ), ships from the Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) were damaged by potentially deadly water cannon bursts from the CCG vessels.


READ: China used ‘very fatal’ water cannon pressure in latest assault—PCG


Rommel Jude Ong, a retired Philippine Navy rear admiral and a professor of praxis at the Ateneo School of Government, told the Inquirer that Beijing was well aware of the ongoing Balikatan Exercises and “most likely chose to stage-manage the recent incident in Scarborough Shoal proximate to the venue of the exercises.”

“The incident is meant to test the Philippines-US alliance, and drive a wedge between our two countries if possible. If we don’t react, then it proves their point that US commitment is not really rock solid,” he said. “If we react directly and aggressively in response to the incident, it gives them the justification to escalate or create a counter narrative.”

Pretext for escalation

More than 16,000 Filipino and American troops are taking part in this year’s Balikatan from April 22 to May 10. Chinese vessels have been shadowing Philippine, US and French Navy vessels participating in Balikatan in the past days.

“China believes — probably correctly — that the US and the Philippines don’t want to provide a pretext for escalation by engaging white-hulled coast guard ships with gray-hulled military ships,” according to Ray Powell, director of SeaLight, a program of Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation that tracks Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea.

MDT invoked if…

“This is central to how China uses its coast guard and maritime militia as an effective paramilitary force, knowing that its adversaries have nothing comparable with which to respond,” he said.


The Philippines and the United States are bound by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) to defend each other in case of an external attack. American officials have said that the treaty “extends to both countries’ armed forces, public vessels and aircraft — including those of its Coast Guard — anywhere in the Pacific, including the South China Sea (SCS).”

During his visit to Washington in April for the first trilateral summit with Japan and the United States, President Marcos said the MDT could be invoked if a Filipino service member is killed in an attack by a foreign power.

“Philippine and US policy elites have made clear they aren’t willing to set the threshold for Beijing’s application of coercive methods in the SCS, such as use of water cannon, for the triggering of MDT unless deaths were involved, surely the Chinese seeks free rein in using whatever means possible to disrupt these resupply missions,” Singapore-based research fellow Collin Koh of S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies told the Inquirer.

“A need to define more clearly what ‘armed attack’ is, since the existing MDT text in its current form is too ambiguous and gives too much free room for Beijing’s interpretation and exploitation,” he said.

“The next ladder of escalation Manila and Washington may consider is, if Beijing fails to heed call to desist from potentially dangerous use of water cannon, to focus the limited pool of PCG offshore patrol vessels, which have sizes more comparable with that of their CCG counterparts, to such WPS missions,” Koh said.

Playing the long game

“The retaliatory use of water cannon against the Chinese by these vessels also shouldn’t be excluded as one potential tactical option,” he added.

Ong said Beijing was concerned with the “trajectory” of Manila’s recent diplomatic moves, particularly the “trilateral cooperation” with Washington and Tokyo.

“Our response should avoid short-term, jerk reactions to the CCG’s tactics. We should play the long game,” he said.

“We need to recover our EEZ and reverse the mistake of the previous administration,” he said. “That means transitioning from sporadic ‘show the flag’ patrols, to a more sustained, multiple area joint patrols with the US and other partners.”


Ong said the Navy could reconfigure its naval base in Subic to support multinational maritime patrols. The PCG and BFAR could also consider leasing and reflagging at least two large oil tankers, and modify them slightly as floating bases to support their operations in the EEZ.

“That will mitigate the effects of the CCG’s current grayzone tactics,” he said.

Powell said that while the Philippines’ transparency strategy has been effective in accomplishing certain goals such as strengthening national resilience, building international support and imposing costs on China, it should have “an effective means with which to counter a sophisticated maritime paramilitary campaign.”

“What its assertive transparency campaign has not proven it can do by itself is to effectively blunt or deter China’s aggression,” he said. “The Philippines, together with its allies and partners, needs to develop a new suite of tools — diplomatic, legal, informational, economic, military, etc. — drawing on all instruments of national power to combat China’s asymmetric gray zone warfare.”

Seemingly futile

ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro said China’s continuing aggression in the West Philippine Sea only highlighted how seemingly futile the major military agreements between Manila and Washington were.

She told the Inquirer that these agreements had fanned, instead of mitigated, further tensions in the West Philippine Sea, pointing to the MDT, the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca).

“These are more than 70 years (MDT), 20 years (VFA) and 10 years (Edca) but why haven’t these worked at all, and why does it seem like the US has really done nothing to stop China from being aggressive?” Castro told the Inquirer.

“It would be better for us to pursue a true, independent foreign policy and not align ourselves with bullies like China or even the US.”

Iloilo Rep. Raul Tupas, vice chair of the House of Representatives’ Committee on National Defense, said in a text message on Wednesday, that Balikatan was not specifically intended to deter Chinese harassment in the West Philippine Sea but to “build a robust framework for defense and security.”

Senators weigh in

The military exercises’ “clear and long-standing objective” is to strengthen military cooperation and readiness between the Philippines and the United States, he pointed out.

Several senators seem to agree with Tupas.

Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, chair of the Senate national defense committee, said the yearly military drills involving Filipino and American troops were specifically aimed at improving their interoperability and defense cooperation.

“Responding to or utilizing it to impede China’s coercive actions against Philippine vessels is outside the scope of these joint military drills,” he pointed out.

For Sen. Francis Tolentino, Balikatan was designed for a “different mission, the accomplishment of which is beyond dispute.”

“We should trust the effectiveness of our alliances, not the unruly behavior of those who intend to distract us,” Tolentino said.

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Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III reiterated that the CCG’s action should not be considered a “military action.”

TAGS: Mutual Defense Treaty, PH-China Relations

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