From April to June, China continued flexing its military capability with a massive naval parade and aircraft carrier trials. When it came to its claimed features in the South China Sea, China upped the ante by actively installing military equipment such as jamming devices and missile systems, and sending bomber planes to the disputed areas. Consequently, tensions rose and we saw the US, along with other powers, take a proactive approach in counterbalancing China’s aggressive behaviour.
Continued US-China Showdown in SCS
China alarmed the international community when it was reported on April 10 that it installed military equipment capable of jamming radar and communication systems in Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef, two of its claimed territories in the Spratly Island Group.
This was followed in April 12 by the largest naval parade in China’s history. President Xi Jinping was present, overseeing the two-day massive military display. According to China’s Defense Ministry, the drill involved at least 10,000 personnel with 48 naval vessels, 76 fighter jets and even included China’s aircraft carrier – the Liaoning. During the occasion, China also announced that it would be hold live-fire drills in the Taiwan Straits on April 18.
This military display happened as the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, leading a carrier strike group, was patrolling in the South China Sea before docking in Manila Bay. The US vessel held aerial demonstrations aboard the ship in front of Philippine generals and journalists on April 12. Rear Admiral Steve Koehler, the strike group commander, said his strike group's presence in the area was nothing new in their planning cycle and it was "probably by happenstance" that its mission coincided with the Chinese military display.
On May 2, missile systems were reportedly installed by China in three of its artificial islands - Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef. US immediately warned China of “consequences” over its deployments.
China also tested its first domestically developed aircraft carrier at sea, as reported on May 13. Chinese military experts however told state media that the carrier is not expected to enter service until 2020.
On May 19, the region was alarmed once more when China Daily newspaper reported that the Chinese Air Force conducted takeoff and landing training with the long-range H-6K bombers in the South China Sea. The exact features and date of the training was not specified, but the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative identified the location of the drill as Woody Island, China's largest base in the Paracel Islands. This is the first time that China had sent bombers to the islands in the South China Sea.
US criticized the move and as a consequence, it withdrew its invitation to China to participate in the RIMPAC Exercises. China’s Defence Ministry said the United States had “ignored the facts and hyped up the so-called ‘militarization’ of the South China Sea”, using it as an excuse to uninvite China. The Pentagon said it was an “initial response” to China’s continued militarization in the South China Sea.
Towards the end of May, Chinese and US military vessels came face-to-face as Chinese warships were dispatched to challenge the class guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam and the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins which sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands. On June 6, US sent B-52 bombers to fly past Scarborough Shoal. China warned the US for “stirring up trouble.”
Other Countries Move
Other countries are also taking a proactive approach in counterbalancing China. The Philippines has seen several visits by foreign military vessels. On April 12, two ships of the Royal Australian Navy -- a long-range missile frigate, Her Majesty’s Australian Ship Anzac (FFH150), and an auxiliary oiler replenishment vessel -- docked at Subic Bay for a five-day goodwill visit. The next day, a Japanese Akizuki-class destroyer also visited the Philippines for a visit of the same nature. The goodwill visit of the Akizuki is the second visit of a JMSDF ship in the country this year, after JS Amagiri last February.
Also part of proactive actions by other countries, the G7 on April 26 issued a joint statement expressing strong opposition “to any unilateral action which escalates tensions and undermines regional stability and the rules-based order.” China on the other hand wasn’t pleased by the statement and called out the G7 for “irresponsible comments.”
Indonesia and Vietnam also pledged to cooperate to settle fishing and other maritime issues in the South China Sea and to strengthen bilateral ties. Pham Binh Minh, Vietnam’s Foreign Minister said both countries agreed to establish a mechanism to handle fishing violations in line with the two countries’ laws.
The proactive approach by other powers was bound to clash with China’s increasingly assertive behavior. On April 19, three Australian warships, -- 2 of which sailed from the Philippines while a third sailed from Malaysia -- were challenged by Chinese military ships conducting a naval exercise as they were transiting towards Vietnam for a three-day goodwill visit.
On June 7, another confrontation with China took place, this time involving a French military vessel. According to reports, Chinese frigates and corvettes followed the French ship passing through the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
In May, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and French President Emmanuel Macron, leaders of Australia and France, the two countries which recently experienced confrontations with China at sea, held a joint conference where they warned China to follow the rule of law in the Asia Pacific. The two leaders also said that they welcome China's investment but that maintaining the rule of law is a critical objective in the Asia Pacific.
The Philippines And Its Relationship With Neighbors
The Philippines has received continuous and increasing attention from various powers in the Asia Pacific during the second quarter of the year. Despite the earlier pronouncements of President Rodrigo Duterte about separating from the United States and even going as far as threatening a stop to joint exercises, the Balikatan Exercises pushed through from May 7 – 18 this year. Last June 26, the USS Ronald Raegan docked for the first time in the Philippines.
The Philippines continues to unroll its military modernization plans. Last May 2, it received its first ship-borne missile systems which were fitted on locally manufactured multi-purpose attack craft, to patrol the South China Sea and other waters of the country. Last June, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that the country was looking at South Korea, Russia, and other countries for its plan to acquire its first batch of submarines under the AFP modernization plan.
As the Philippines persists with modernizing its military, it continues to encounter problems in its relations with China. A video footage surfaced in June of Chinese Coast Guard personnel taking Filipino fishermen’s catch in Scarborough Shoal. This blew up in Philippine media and resulted in the government asking China to stop its Coast Guard from taking fishermen’s catch. Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua assured the Philippines that Chinese Coast Guard personnel who shall be proven to have committed the act will be punished. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang further said that the CCG “consistently operated in accordance with the law”. Another statement by the Chinese embassy mentioned that "China has made appropriate arrangement for the Philippine fishermen to fish in relevant waters out of goodwill” and that “this policy remains unchanged."
The press release however did not go unnoticed by the media, with the way it was written emphasizing China’s control over Scarborough Shoal and the inequality between the two countries with regards to access to fishing resources in the area.
US and China continue to clash in their positions on how the South China Sea should be treated. China remains persistent with its territorial claims while US believes that the waterways where a significant amount of global trade passes should be open and should not be controlled by any one country. As neither shows any sign of backing down, and are in fact even becoming more active in asserting their positions, other powers -- particularly US allies -- are taking a proactive approach to manifest how they view the disputed waters.
Countries such as Australia, Britain, Japan, France, Germany, and the G7 showed support for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. Australia and France, by sailing through the South China Sea, were “confronted” by Chinese Navy vessels and told that the areas were under Chinese sovereignty . The steady and continued challenge by the United States to the nine-dash line, and now the involvement of its allies in sending military vessels to the South China Sea and in strengthening links with small but strategically relevant states, are leading to increasing tensions with an adamant China. The Philippines finds itself at the center of this growing intervention by big and middle powers.
Visits by military ships from different parties have been reported since the start of the year. They have also become more diversified – from goodwill visits by Japan, Australia, and US Navy ships, to refuelling and refurbishing by Chinese military planes and research vessels. But it is the latter which alarmed certain citizens when exposed by media, particularly as these planes and ships have been seen from time to time in Davao City, which is President Duterte’s bulwark of support for and which is now led by his daughter Sara Duterte.
More players have decided to enter the fray in the South China Sea. The Philippines’ geographic importance has become evident with the attention it has been getting from various parties in the form of military visits in recent months. But it would seem that the Philippines still has not yet resolved what it must do, based on its national interests, in response to all this attention. As much as it considers the such a development welcome, it must take charge of its own ship and steer its own foreign policy to align with domestic interests. It must decide how it wants to be treated by bigger powers on issues of sovereignty and sovereign rights, as well as be clear on what is negotiable (and what is not) with respect to the competing claims. The new-found attention could perhaps be used as leverage in negotiations with China, or at the very least as a means for greater engagement with interested parties.