Last week, a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) maritime patrol aircraft flew over Ayungin and Sabina shoals to check on the presence of dozens of Chinese militia and maritime law enforcement vessels during a domain awareness flight.

The Chinese vessels were in the area for weeks or even months, rotating regularly to keep a constant presence in the area to gain control of the maritime space.

The coast guard aircraft was challenged by the Chinese vessels to leave the area because it entered China’s territory. But the aircraft responded by challenging the Chinese vessels to leave because they were within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The situation in Ayungin and Sabina shoals won’t probably change a week or a month after last week’s maritime domain awareness flight. The Chinese vessels won’t leave the area. It is China’s way of asserting its claims on almost the entire South China Sea.

The coast guard said the militia vessels were not really conducting fishing activities but were simply loitering to establish presence and gain control of the area.

The Chinese are trying to do a game Filipino children play on the streets: “agawan base.” At the count of three, children occupy a space and a player who cannot find a place loses in the game.

However, there could be another reason why dozens of Chinese vessels are in the area and around a rusting naval transport ship, BRP Sierra Madre, which ran aground on Ayungin nearly a quarter of a decade ago.

They could be blockading sea routes meant to resupply BRP Sierra Madre, which will starve to death a handful of Marines and the Navy’s Special Warfare Group (SWAG) stationed on the ship, which has served as the country’s lonely outpost to stop China’s expansion in the South China Sea.

Back in the 1990s, China started aggressively claiming uninhabited features in the South China Sea, putting up stone markers to mark the territories.

The Philippines responded by blasting these markers on features within the country’s EEZ.

But in 1995, the Philippines discovered that China has already occupied Mischief Reef, a half-submerged feature within the country’s EEZ and along the traditional route Philippine public vessels pass to reach one of its biggest occupied features in the Spratly — Thitu or Pagasa Island.

Thus, the Philippines decided to run aground an old, World War II-vintage transport vessel on Second Thomas Shoal or Ayungin shoal to stop further Chinese encroachment.

That did not stop China from marching forward to achieve its goal of establishing its first island chain of defense, transforming seven of the features it had occupied in the Spratlys into virtual floating fortresses, building secured ports and 3-kilometer-long runways.

It was not until 2002 when China stopped occupying features in the Spratly. It signed with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) to preserve the status quo and reduce tensions in the area.

A decade later, China shifted its strategy to gain more control of the strategic waterway: sending more vessels to physically occupy an area.

First, China sent its coast guard and fishing vessels around Scarborough Shoal to box out the Philippines, which lost not only a rich fishing ground but a strategic position in controlling the sealanes.

Now, China is moving fast into the Spratlys, sending militia vessels into areas eastward and closer to Palawan.

China’s next target is probably the Half Moon shoal, which is only 100 nautical miles from the nearest Palawan coast line.

The area is used for the traditional barter trade between local and Chinese fishermen. Turtles, anteaters and other illegal and endangered species are traded in the area.

The Philippine response to China’s actions is inadequate. It could not even conduct constant “show-the-flag” operations in the South China Sea because of its limited platforms to patrol the area.

The Philippine Coast Guard only has 25 capital ships to guard the vast South China Sea on its west and the Pacific Ocean on its east. The north is becoming a flashpoint because of Taiwan and the south has an urgent threat because of piracy and Islamist militants criss-crossing the porous borders with Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Philippine Navy has fewer ships and could not really react to China’s gray zone strategy, a lesson it learned the hard way in Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

Even if the Philippines holds joint naval and coast guard patrols with its allies, like the United States, Australia, and Japan, China could not be stopped from its coercive and aggressive activities in the South China Sea.

The Philippines is not alone. Malaysia and Vietnam also have to deal with Chinese vessels in their EEZ. Chinese coast guard vessels even circle around oil-and-gas fields in Malaysia and Vietnam.

China will not stop until it has established full control over the South China Sea, pushing the Americans, Australians, the Japanese and even some European navies away from the South China Sea to create a buffer zone.

The Chinese have started laying the groundwork to set up its second island chain of defense east of the Philippines and closer to Guam.

Chinese survey vessels have been mapping the Pacific Ocean from Benham Rise in the north down to the Philippine trench in the south to establish submarine routes and prepare to expand its defense line.

Beijing’s strategy includes taking over Taiwan and the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea to really box out the US and its allies from conducting freedom of navigation to waters close to China’s mainland.

The real intention of China is world dominance, and eclipse the United States economy and military power a quarter of a century from now.

American national security expert Michael Pillsbury, in his book, “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as Global Superpower,” wrote about China’s global ambitions and how it wanted to get back at the West for the humiliation it suffered in the 19th century.

Western powers, like the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Portugal carved out China’s territories beginning in the First Opium Wars in 1839.

Japan soon joined Western powers by invading Manchuria and the rest of China during World War II.

It was not the first time China submitted to foreign rule. In the 13th century, Mongols led by Kublai and Genghis Khan invaded China and established the Yuan dynasty in Beijing, which lasted for nearly 100 years.

But modern-day Chinese leaders could not forget the humiliation China suffered in the hands of the Japanese and Western powers from the 19th century to early 20th century — another 100 years of foreign control.

Thus, when the Chinese Communist Party took over in 1949, it began preparations for a long march to global domination by 2049.

This would explain China’s actions in the South China Sea and why it refuses to recognize the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 to nullify its excessive nine-dash-line claim in the South China Sea.

China has been expanding its sphere of influence in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the South Pacific, threatening the US, Australia, and the Europeans. It has also been reaching out to Central Asian republics.

It put up naval bases in Pakistan and North Africa and possibly in Cambodia and Myanmar.

Thus, even if the Philippine Coast Guard conducts daily maritime domain awareness flights and continues to challenge Chinese vessels within the country’s EEZ, they will not leave the area. China will not back down and it may even increase its presence and activities.

The only way the Philippines can respond to Chinese incursions is to show the flag in the disputed waters. But it comes with a cost. Manila has to build a large navy and coast guard to establish the country’s presence.

As the insurgency problems from the Communists and the Muslim separatists fade away, it is time for the military to cut its ground forces and focus on external defense, and acquire more vessels and aircraft to defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

There has never been a flag officer who commanded the entire armed forces. There was a brief period when a Marine general became chief of staff but most military chiefs were from the army.

Show the flag in the disputed seas. It can only happen if the Philippine Navy and the civilian Coast Guard have more capital ships.

It’s about time the country invested more on the navy and air force and let the army play a secondary role.