Two indigenous boats — actually “bangka na may katig” — left a naval base at Oyster Bay in the western part of Palawan on Nov. 22 to ferry troops and bring supplies to an old military transport ship that ran aground deliberately in the late 1990s on a half-submerged shoal in the South China Sea.
The two watercraft are what could be the country’s answer to China’s large, steel-hulled militia vessels that swarm its rivals’ occupied features in the disputed waters.
The wooden-hulled boats with bamboo outriggers are inferior to China’s unarmed militia vessels, but serve a vital purpose — they can smoothly navigate through the reef-fringed shallow waters in the West Philippine Sea, where China’s large coast guard and militia vessels have a difficult time navigating.
Some of these motor bancas are fast enough although it will take 24 to 30 hours for the boats to reach the rusting World War 2-vintage ship from Palawan’s western shores.
As nations compete to take control of maritime features in the Spratlys in the South China Sea, China introduced a new maritime security strategy to assert its claims in the vast but strategic waterway in Southeast Asia — the use of maritime militias.
Late last year, China assembled a large fleet of militia vessels in the disputed waters and later dispersed them to areas near other countries’ occupied features and in uninhabited features it seeks to control but could not seize because of an earlier gentleman’s agreement with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
In 2002, China and Asean signed in Phnom Penh a political document called the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), an informal code of conduct that prohibits the occupation of uninhabited atolls, reefs and shoals whether or not these are above the waters during low or high tide.
Thus China was forced to convert into artificial islands seven features it was already occupying. Beijing began occupying Fiery Cross Reef (Kagitingan) in the Spratlys in 1988 after it defeated Hanoi in a limited naval conflict — the only shooting war in the area since the end of the Second World War.
Japan had a submarine base in the Spratlys during the war.
After Asean issued a Manila Declaration in 1992 to peacefully resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea and to restrain from using force and the threat to use force, China stopped using its People’s Liberation Army-Navy to harass the inferior naval forces of its smaller neighbors. Only Japan can match China’s naval forces.
Beijing started employing its white ships — coast guard vessels — to deal with fishermen and other civilian vessels sailing through the disputed waters.
These coast guard vessels use water cannons, sirens, and blinking lights, and board and detain other ships. There were times when Chinese vessels rammed other ships.
The large presence of Chinese coast guard vessels has forced the US to shift tactics in conducting freedom of navigation patrols in the area.
A US coast guard vessel joins a US naval task group, which includes a carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine, to sail within 12 nautical miles off China’s man-made islands in the Spratly and Paracels.
Washington has also stationed a coast guard cutter in the region to match Beijing’s presence.
But China added a new element in its naval cabbage strategy in the South China Sea — the deployment of dozens of militia vessels.
The US and its allies have no militia vessels to match China’s growing number of former coast guard ships and fishing vessels crowding the South China Sea.
These vessels are everywhere, guarding Chinese interests in the Reed Bank and in the Spratlys, near the nine features occupied by the Philippines.
They block and prevent local fishing vessels and other ships from sailing through Chinese-claimed maritime waters.
Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, a strategic waterway where $3 trillion of seaborne trade passes every year.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also have conflicting claims on the sea believed to have rich deposits of energy resources.
The militia vessels have become tools to pressure other claimant-states from pushing reclamation and other improvements on their occupied features. Their presence near Pagasa island would make it hard for the Philippines to deliver construction materials and heavy equipment to repair facilities and build more structures on the island.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon has said there were 45 Chinese militia vessels near Pagasa or what is known internationally as Thitu island, where the military is upgrading an airstrip and doing some reclamation work to extend the runway.
A senior armed forces commander told journalists the Chinese coast guard blocked and prevented two indigenous boats from getting near BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal early this month because China suspected the boats were carrying materials to repair the rusting ship.
The military was repairing and reinforcing the ship because it could fall apart any moment due to corrosion. The indigenous boats are used to deliver construction materials to BRP Sierra Madre.
But these boats can only carry so much materials and the risks are higher. The steel, cement and other materials could be lost due to rough waters and strong winds.
These indigenous boats cannot withstand the giant waves and strong winds in the sea, especially near the Scarborough Shoal across the provinces of Pangasinan and Zambales and Ayungin Shoal west of Palawan.
These features are not really far from the Philippines but there are periods during the southwest monsoon when even the old navy vessels were afraid to patrol the area during these typhoon seasons in the 1990s.
Thus, the country woke up in February 1995 to find a makeshift shelter for fishermen on Panginaban or Mischief
Reef. It was too late for the country to prevent China from occupying what has become a sprawling, man-made island with a three-kilometer long airstrip.
The Philippines has thousands of indigenous boats and there are some ways they could be put to good use to counter China’s militia vessels.
Only a few of them can really venture into the dangerous waters in the South China Sea but they can be force multipliers and can serve to monitor Chinese activities in the Spratly.
It is better for the Philippines to use its logistics vessels, which have more payload.
The Philippines should not play a cat-and-mouse game with China. Beijing knew of Manila’s intention to reinforce BRP Sierra Madre and replace it with a more permanent structure. China would not dare attack a public vessel. It could risk an escalation because of the country’s Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States.
In the past, Washington was vague and ambiguous in taking a defensive response when a Filipino public vessel went under an armed attack.
But it has changed under the Trump administration, and the Biden administration has taken the same path as the US and China rivalry escalated in the region, not only in the South China Sea but in Taiwan Straits.
The time for the Philippines to take a bolder step has come. It has acquired more capable ocean-going vessels to patrol and protect the country’s national interests.
The Philippines must stop thinking it is inferior to China and it will be defeated in a war. China will not risk a conflict in an area where its oil imports and other goods pass through.
The world is watching China and it is on the Philippines’s side.
Take a risk, but don’t start a war.