There was a news story last week published by an international agency, which was widely shared on social media. It was about the menacing naval forces sent by the United States and the Philippines to the South China Sea in reaction to China’s illegal presence in the disputed waters in the Spratlys.

The news story was inaccurate.

For instance, China did not cower in fear over the display of the United States carrier strike group and an amphibious vessel carrying thousands of US Marines.

In fact, Beijing sent its own carrier group to the Spratlys to show it had the capability to match the US naval force. The US Navy sent out videos showing deck officers watching the Chinese land an aircraft on its carrier.

Washington sent its USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group to conduct freedom of navigation patrol operations (FNOPS) in the South China Sea for the second time this year to challenge Beijing’s excessive claims on almost the entire strategic waterway.

That was an awesome force, part of its psychological warfare, and to show Washington’s allies in the Indo-Pacific region its commitment to remain a stabilizing factor in the region.

The international news report, however, erred when it said Manila had sent its two guided-missile frigates, acquired from South Korea, to “show its flag” in the disputed Whitsun Reef, locally known as Julian Felipe Reef.

According to a statement by the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea, the military sent four navy assets to join a coast guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessels to patrol the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

But the Philippines did not send the frigates. It deployed two World War 2 vintage vessels — BRP Magat Salamat and BRP Miguel Malvar.

These warships will be decommissioned later this year. Both vessels are almost 80 years old, older than the crew on board.
These vessels have no missiles, are slow, consume so much fuel and have lesser endurance. They could not stay on patrol for a week and had to return to Batangas for refueling and resupply.

The two other ships were a logistics vessel acquired from the US in the 1990s and an ex-Peacock-class offshore patrol vessel from the British Royal Navy, which the Philippines bought from Hong Kong before it was handed over to China in 1997.

The Philippines did not send its two newly acquired guided-missile frigates and the ex-Pohang class corvette donated by South Korea — the three powerful vessels that could be deployed for two weeks before returning to port for refuel and resupply.

Last year, the guided-missile frigate BRP Jose Rizal went to Hawaii for more than a month to join the annual naval RimPac exercises hosted by the United States for its allies in the Western Pacific area.
Thus, Manila’s deployment of four ill-equipped and ageing warships showed it was sending a token force. It was all for a show to appease the public demanding actions from the government to protest the Chinese incursions into its sovereign waters.

It was not even appropriate to send navy ships to confront the Chinese militia vessels. The Philippines never learned its lesson when it sent the ex-Hamilton-class BRP Gregorio del Pilar to Scarborough Shoal in 2012 to arrest Chinese fishermen poaching in a rocky outcrop 135 miles west of Zambales, and within the country’s EEZ.

The warship withdrew and was replaced by a coast guard vessel after China sent three of its law enforcement vessels to protect the fishermen, whom the navy failed to arrest.

It was not wise to confront China’s militia vessels with navy warships. It would escalate the situation and force the Philippines to back off when China sends its missile gunboats to face the World War II-era warships.

The Philippines should deploy its more capable coast guard vessels to demand Chinese militia vessels leave Whitsun Reef at once. It is the proper way of addressing the illegal presence.

The Philippine Coast Guard, a civilian maritime enforcement force under the Department of Transportation, has 10 brand-new vessels acquired from Japan under a loan agreement from JICA. It recently acquired another vessel from France.

The Philippines’s response to China’s incursions was puzzling. First, the NTF-WPS issued a statement about the presence on Julian Felipe reef in the third week of March when China started sending a large number of militia vessels in December.

On March 7, some 200 vessels were spotted on Julian Reef but it took two weeks for the Philippines to issue a statement. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana demanded the pullout not once but thrice and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin filed several diplomatic protests, elevating it to the next level by summoning the Chinese ambassador to explain the vessels’ “lingering” presence in the country’s EEZ.

The sending of the seven public vessels is a calculated escalation as the Philippines avoided a stronger response from China. It remains to be seen what the country will do next to voice its protest.

However, only the national security team of President Rodrigo Duterte is taking action. Nothing was heard of from the commander-in-chief since the issue surfaced last month.

Duterte disappeared for two weeks before appearing in public last week. He held two televised meetings but said nothing about the West Philippine Sea issue. It was as if nothing was happening at the sea. He even heaped praises on China for delivering the country’s first vaccines against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).

It is really disheartening when the leader of a country refuses to recognize a serious problem like China’s illegal activities in the country’s EEZ.

Some Chinese vessels had even violated the 12-nautical-mile territorial water around Pagasa Island, or Thitu island in the Spratly and the military seemed helpless in preventing this.

When the president does not want to take action against China’s incursions, the recent deployment of a token naval force to the country’s EEZ has become suspicious.

The defense and military establishments are unsure of Duterte’s position. The naval force deployment was all for a show.
It was meant for the domestic audience. It was not meant to intimidate China. It was a pathetic response to China. It was a mere token resistance.