On Feb. 1, two Chinese coast guard vessels and two militia ships shadowed the Philippine Navy’s most powerful and newest warship, the BRP Andres Bonifacio, a guided-missile frigate, when it sailed around the disputed waters in the South China Sea.
The Chinese law enforcement vessels performed dangerous maneuvers when these ships, according to the Philippine Coast Guard, “even conducted an intercept course towards the Philippine Navy warship”.
The Chinese’s illegal actions are not new. China’s coast guard and militia vessels have been shadowing Philippine public vessels, including armed naval warships, in the South China Sea.
But these provocative actions have been increasing in recent months and an accident could likely happen that could lead to a limited war in the areas within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
The United States could be drawn into the conflict after it committed to respond to any armed attack on a military vessel or any public vessel anywhere in the South China Sea.
That was clearly articulated by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during a press conference at Camp Aguinaldo on Thursday, a day after the latest shadowing incident near Mischief Reef.
Mischief Reef was first occupied by China in 1995, when it built a makeshift fisherman’s shelter that became a concrete fortress before it was converted into an artificial island with a 3-kilometer runway and secured ports.
Mischief Reef has become a floating aircraft carrier with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile batteries and the Chinese naval and coast guard vessels guarding it to make sure no foreign vessels could come near.
However, the US Navy occasionally sailed within Mischief Reef’s 12-nautical-mile territorial waters, drawing protest from Beijing. There were also overflights.
The BRP Andres Bonifacio’s (PS 17) daring attempt to sail close to Mischief Reef was seen as an escalation of Philippine naval operations, similar to what the US, Australia, and Japan have been doing during freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the area.
Perhaps, the Philippines was testing the waters after Austin and his Filipino counterpart, Carlito Galvez, announced on Thursday the resumption of joint naval patrols in the South China Sea.
During the Aquino administration, the Philippine Navy took part in limited patrols in the South China Sea but it had avoided sailing close to Chinese-built islands in the Spratlys.
Former president Rodrigo Duterte stopped the joint patrols to appease China, which also protested amphibious landing exercises in Zambales and other areas in the country’s western corridor.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s ascension to power last year had indicated a drastic change in the Philippine-United States security relations.
Less than a year after Marcos Jr won the presidency, the Americans were granted at least four new military locations where they could preposition troops and equipment — logistics hubs for the US Army, US Air Force, and US Marines in the Indo-Pacific region.
It would allow more flexibility to the US armed forces whose bulk of forward deployed forces are in South Korea, Japan, and Guam – far from the potential flashpoints in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits.
Austin and Galvez both told the press the new sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) would enhance the two allies’ interoperability in responding to disasters and humanitarian emergencies brought by climate change.
However, the locations of the new bases betrayed the security interests of the Americans. The Philippines has very limited capability, which puts into question the interoperability of the two armed forces. The US military is also preparing for any contingency in the volatile Taiwan Straits.
China has repeatedly said it would hesitate to invade Taiwan to reunite the renegade province with the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Macau. An American four-star general had warned there could be a conflict with Beijing by 2025 over Taiwan.
China has been stepping up its aggressive actions both on the self-ruled island Taiwan and disputed territories in the South China Sea. It has been sending waves and waves of aircraft every day to test the island’s readiness and has been holding naval drills around Taiwan.
It has also increased its presence and activities in the Spratlys and has been moving closer to Palawan, driving away Filipino fishermen from rich fishing grounds within its economic zone that do not overlap with China.
In short, China has illegally encroached into the Philippines’s sovereign waters, violating the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and the 2016 arbitral ruling at The Hague.
There are some people in the Philippines who worry that the increased US presence in the country can pose danger because the local military bases where the American military can be targeted by China in case of a conflict.
That’s a risk but many also argue that the US presence can be a deterrent to Chinese actions in the region. The US can also deploy HIMARS and Patriot missiles to counter Chinese missiles fired into local bases.
President Marcos must accelerate the military modernization program to increase the level of military readiness and somehow improve its capacity and capability to operate at par with the US.
It was wrong for the president to slow down on the capability upgrade because the military still lacked basic equipment to detect intrusions, and interdict and stop the encroachment into the country’s maritime and airspace.
It could take another 10 years to complete the two phases of the modernization program that ended last year, requiring more than P500 billion.
The third phase, which should start under the term of President Marcos, was pushed back to 2030 unless the government starts spending at least 2 percent of the country’s GDP on defense and get more assistance from the US and Japan.
It’s not too late to focus on national security. Perhaps the military should get 25 percent of the Maharlika Investment Fund every year to modernize the military. The government can allocate P50 billion over the next six years under the Marcos administration to complete a modest credible defense posture.
Marcos should modernize the military and prepare for any possible regional conflict that could ensnare the country in the future.