A young fighter pilot, Raul del Rosario, flying an S-211 jet, found the danger first in February 1995 while patrolling over the disputed South China Sea.

He saw a makeshift shelter on a half-submerged Mischief Reef, locally known as Panganiban Reef, well within the country’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. 

It was not an ordinary intrusion. It posed serious implications on the country’s national security as another country had occupied an uninhabited feature in the Kalayaan Group of Islands.

China acknowledged it had built a shelter for its fishermen in the area but a quarter of a century later, the makeshift shelter has turned into an artificial island fortress with an airstrip and naval base.

Early this month, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels were seen anchored near a boomerang-shaped Whitsum Reef, locally known as Julian Felipe Reef, about 175 nautical miles west of Palawan, also within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

This time, China explained that the vessels were in the area to seek shelter from inclement weather. It was a bad script. It was totally unbelievable. 

At this time of the year, the winds and seas in the Spratlys are fair and calm. No typhoon was reported in the last three weeks when the fishing vessels took shelter at the reef, close to features occupied by China and Vietnam.

The seas would be rough and dangerous in late May and early June when the monsoon season sets in. In the past, even the Philippine Navy did not send ships to the area due to weather conditions.

The weather has become China’s standard response when its ships are caught within the country’s territorial and exclusive economic waters.

Last month, a Chinese survey vessel was caught in territorial waters of the Bicol region. But the Chinese embassy said it was also seeking cover from a typhoon. But there was none at that time.

China is fooling the Philippines with the excuses of bad weather conditions. These intrusions into the country’s waters have exposed the weakness of the Philippines’s maritime defenses.

The Philippine Coast Guard should step up patrols around the coastal areas to enforce the country’s maritime laws, instead of escorting hundreds of returning overseas workers from the airport to quarantine hotels in the capital. 

The Philippine National Police, which has more warm bodies, can do the job better than the undermanned coast guard, which has more brand-new patrol ships than the navy.

The Philippines should deploy the coast guard to counter China’s intrusion into the country’s waters, reducing risks of a potential confrontation instead of sending naval warships to deal with Chinese fishermen.

The 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff should have served as a lesson to the government. When the government received reports of the presence of Chinese fishermen at Scarborough Shoal, locally known as Panatag Shoal, it dispatched from Palawan its newest warship, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, an ex-US Coast Guard weather high-endurance cutter, USS Hamilton.

Within hours, BRP Gregorio del Pilar caught the Chinese fishermen destroying corals in a lagoon inside the shoal but before the navy could bring them back to a Philippine port, the Chinese coast guard vessels appeared.

The Philippine Navy found itself in an awkward position as its ill-equipped warship faced off with three Chinese coast guard vessels.

The coast guard and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) sent its vessels to watch over the shoal in a standoff that lasted for three months before the United States intervened to defuse the tension.

There was an agreement for the two counties to withdraw from the shoal but the Chinese did not honor the deal. After the Philippines withdrew its ships, China did not leave the area and seized control of the shoal.

The same tactics could happen in Julian Felipe Reef, part of the bigger Union Banks in the Spratlys. China would not physically occupy the reef, build structures and expand it into another artificial island but it would have effective control over the area, similar to Scarborough Shoal.

There were speculations into what China was doing at the Julian Felipe Reef. Would China turn it into another Mischief Reef?

It is doubtful. China has adhered to the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, an informal code of conduct signed in Phnom Penh by China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

China and the four Asean claimant states — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — had agreed to preserve the status quo, meaning there would be no new occupation of uninhabited features in the South China Sea.

However, it did not stop claimant states from expanding and upgrading the features they occupied. China has transformed the seven features it occupies into artificial islands. 

Vietnam also did some reclamation and the Philippines built a beach ramp and is repairing its airfield on Thitu island, locally known as Pagasa island, which is actually outside the country’s exclusive economic zone.

China wanted to project an image of a responsible member of the international community as it slowly rises as a global power to rival the United States. It has become the second largest economy in the world and might overtake the US before the decade ends. It is aiming to surpass the US as the world’s mightiest army by 2049, 100 years after the Communist won over the nationalists in China.

China does not want to lose its face. Thus it adhered to the 2002 DOC and is negotiating a formal Code of Conduct with Asean, hoping to conclude talks within the year.

But with vast maritime resources, China could still seize control of the South China Sea without occupying territories. It could take possession by positioning its vessels around a strategic feature, like Scarborough Shoal.

The Philippines will soon lose the Sandy Bars near Pagasa Island as Chinese vessels have blockaded the area and are poised to gain control over Julian Felipe Reef.

The Philippines wanted the Chinese fishing vessels to withdraw from Julian Felipe Reef but it has very limited options. It could not send warships to confront the fishing vessels and risk another standoff.

It would only give China an excuse to grab control of the reef. The possibility of an accident would be high due to Chinese provocations.

But it could participate with the US-led coalition to hold exercises and patrols in the South China Sea, which it did in 2019.

It is still best for the Philippines to use its strongest weapon — legal and diplomatic channels — to force China to retreat and abandon Julian Felipe Reef.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), the Philippines has sovereign rights over the Julian Felipe reef as part of its exclusive economic zone. 

The Philippines must always invoke international laws. Another arbitral case is fruitless. The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in July 2016 on the economic entitlement of the Philippines on the area, demolishing China’s nine-dash-line.

Although China continued to ignore the ruling, the United States, Japan, Australia and other western countries have recognized it and used it as a basis to hold freedom of navigation patrols in the disputed waters.

The Philippines can also raise the issue of Chinese control over Julian Felipe Reef in all international fora, in Asean and other multilateral institutions, calling on all states to exert pressure on China to respect the country’s sovereign rights.

While bilateral meetings with China are also helpful, it should not be the main mechanism to settle the issue. China has mastered the divide-and-rule strategy, engaging in bilateral talks with smaller and weaker states.

However, can the Philippines expect the government of Rodrigo Duterte to take action? 

A week before the presence of the Chinese vessels near Julian Felipe Reef was detected, China sent 600,000 vaccines against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).

A week after it filed a diplomatic protest against China’s presence in the reef, it sent another donation of 400,000 vaccines to the country.

Beijing’s donations — totalling 1 million doses —  are not token gifts of friendship. These are designed to cushion the impact of China’s attempt to control Julian Felipe Reef.

It illustrated China’s duplicity. It gives a token amount in exchange for the country’s patrimony.