Back in 2013, a Chinese general coined a revolutionary “cabbage” strategy to assert Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, which meant deploying a swarm of civilian boats and warships in the contested areas to put pressure on smaller and weaker rivals, like the Philippines.

To illustrate the strategy, China has sent dozens of fishing boats and militia vessels in the Spratly and Paracel islands to make its presence felt. These ships were protected by larger Chinese Coast Guard cutters and offshore patrol boats several miles behind. China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy warships, packing more lethal firepower, stand by miles away, closer to seven artificial islands it had constructed in the South China Sea.

The Philippines came to know about the strategy in 2012 when it made a mistake of sending its most capable warship, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, formerly a United States Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutter, to Scarborough Shoal to arrest Chinese fishermen collecting giant clams in the rocky outcrop within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

Within hours, Chinese coast guard vessels appeared on the scene to rescue the fishermen, preventing the Philippine Navy ship from towing the fishing vessel back to the Philippines. What happened next was a three-month standoff between a Philippine Coast Guard ship and several Chinese coast guard vessels, which ended when the local public vessel pulled out from the shoal in a supposed negotiated deal.

China reneged on the agreement and seized control of the strategic uninhabited shoal, which was used as an impact area for US Navy guns when Washington was still maintaining two large overseas military bases in Subic and Clark until 1992.

Early this year,  China made its “cabbage strategy” felt in the Spratlys, deploying hundreds of fishing and militia boats around Philippine-occupied  features, particularly on the main Pagasa (Thitu) island where the military has been constructing a beach ramp in preparation for the repair and upgrade of its facilities on the bean-shaped island, including an airfield and a secured port.

A senior Philippine Navy flag officer said the presence of Chinese vessels in the disputed South China Sea had increased five-fold from five years ago, as more than 200 Chinese vessels were observed early this year around its occupied features in the Spratlys.

The Chinese “cabbage strategy” was so effective that Washington has adopted a similar game plan under its new Indo-Pacific strategy, deploying its national security cutter with the US Navy’s 7th Fleet in the region.

“We have deployed two of our flagships, the National Security Cutters Stratton and Bertholf, in support of the Department of Defense Combatant Commander, the Indo-Pacific Commander,” Admiral Karl   Schultz, US Coast Guard commandant, said in a telephonic briefing last week. The USS Bertholf was in the Philippines earlier and held drills with the Philippine Coast Guard.

There were reports Chinese coast guard vessels shadowed the USS Bertholf as it steamed in the West Philippine Sea on its way to Manila Bay.

Schultz said the US coast guard’s “enduring role is not to replace or duplicate Department of Defense assets or capabilities, but to employ our unique authorities and capabilities to complement Department of Defense forces,” underlining its expanding mandate to “strengthen maritime governance, advance national collection requirements, and confront threats to the United States of America.

Many Indo-Pacific nations, including the Philippines, lack the capacity and capability to fully police their sovereign waters, which make them vulnerable to narcotics trafficking; human smuggling; illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing; piracy; and terrorist activities, Schultz said, noting increased “coercive and antagonistic behavior” in the disputed waters.

The United States Coast Guard appears to be stretching itself beyond its mandate, which is to enforce laws and protect its maritime borders, by offering to assist allies and partner nations in upholding and asserting their own sovereignty. The deployment of two national security cutters in the region was not enough to counter China’s “cabbage strategy,” but serves as a new element in Washington’s evolving security strategy in the region.

The deployment of coast guard vessels beyond a country’s maritime borders is not new. Japan has been sending its Maritime Self Defense Forces (MSDF) beyond its borders and around Southeast Asian states for port calls and anti-piracy drills, and have joined multinational forces to counter piracy attacks in Somalia in the mid-2000s.

In a limited way, the Philippines has also increased its presence in the West Philippines Sea as its coast guard becomes more capable of patrolling the country’s vast and porous maritime borders with larger and newer platforms.

The coast guard has newer ships than the navy, which operates several World War 2-era warships and older platforms transferred from the United States Navy and Coast Guard. The Philippine Navy’s first guided-missile frigate will see action next year while negotiations are still underway for six Offshore Patrol Vessels to replace 70- to 75-year-old warships.

France will deliver this year an 84-meter-long Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) while Japan is building two 94-meter Multi-Role Response Vessel (MRRV) to complement its four Australian-made 56-meter patrol vessels and 10 Japanese-funded 44-meter-long multi-role response vessels now in active service.

Even if the Philippines combined its navy, coast guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessels, these will still pale in comparison to the swarm of Chinese floating assets in the South China Sea. Thus there is a need to heed the United States’ call for an international effort to push back against China in the disputed area.

In a recent visit to Batanes to inspect damage brought by moderate earthquake on July 27, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the coast guard to increase patrols in the northern waters, noting China’s land-grabbing activities in South China Sea.

Right is might. Manila should not fear a shooting war in South China Sea by asserting its sovereign rights. Vietnam and Malaysia have started to stand their ground, resisting China in its own claimed territorial seas. It’s about time the Philippines did the same.

 

A veteran defense reporter who won the Pulitzer in 2018 for Reuters’ reporting on the Philippines’ war on drugs, the author is a former Reuters journalist.