The United States hit the ground running in early 2019, with multiple engagements throughout the region and making its presence felt. Years of developing submarine warfare capabilities by Southeast Asian states are starting to bear fruit, though this could further complicate the situation in the region. 

America Reasserts Her Presence, China Responds

The United States (US) began 2019 with the new Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), signed by President Donald Trump, that authorizes spending for a range of programs in East and Southeast Asia and pushes for the development of a long-term US policy for the Indo-Pacific region. The law also puts a spotlight on the US's allies and partners in the region, as well as draws attention to the maritime issues, among others.

A week into the new year, the US conducted its first Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOPS) for the year, with the USS McCampbell sailing within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Island chain. The USS McCampbell also participated in 6 days of coordinated joint drills with a British Royal Navy (RN) frigate in the South China Sea. China responded by deploying its DF-26 ballistic missiles in its northwest plateau, which the state media announced was capable of targeting medium and large ships.

US Navy Admiral John Richardson, the US Chief of Naval Operations, visited China in mid-January for talks and discussions with counterparts. During his visit, People's Liberation Army (PLA) General Li Zuocheng, the Chief of the Joint Staff Department, warned that outside interference in matters considered core and internal to China, such as Taiwan, was extremely unwelcome, and that China would defend its sovereignty at all costs. Around the same time, vessels from the PLA's South China Sea fleet set sail for deep-water exercises with the PLA Air Force, Rocket Force, and Strategic Support Force.

China opened a maritime rescue center on Fiery Cross Reef around the end of January, further developing the features it holds in the South China Sea. The reef also contains a military-grade airfield and installations that track military activity and communication.

In mid-February, the US Navy conducted its second FONOPS in the region by sending two guided-missile destroyers to the Spratlys, traveling within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying criticized the US, accusing it of stirring up trouble in the South China Sea.

Later that month, the US Navy and the Royal Navy conducted its second joint maritime security drills in the South China Sea, participated in by a US Navy replenishment oiler, RN frigate, and the RN Marines. The US Navy also sent another destroyer, accompanied by a cargo ship, through the Taiwan Strait, which caused anger in Beijing, calling the action provocative. China also concluded month-long deep-water exercises, which consisted of 20 drills, including live-fire exercises in the west and central Pacific, as well as the South China Sea.

After the second Kim-Trump Summit in Hanoi, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo visited Manila and gave a firm assurance of the US's commitment to its Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the Philippines. Pompeo assured that, "any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations." This reassurance comes months after Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana began calling for a review of the MDT. In March, the US Air Force deployed its Stratofortess bombers twice over the region for patrols, sending one each to the East and South China Seas during the first week and two bombers over the South China Sea during the second week.

Submarine Rush 

The increasing salience of submarine warfare in the region’s seas is slowly pushing states towards developing their submarine and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities.

Indonesia has begun the negotiations for the follow-on order of three new diesel-electric Nagapasa-class submarines from Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, of which it previously has three.  The Indonesian Navy also received five more Panther anti-submarine helicopters from state-owned PT Dirigantara, enhancing the Indonesian Navy's ASW capabilities.

Singapore has held a launch ceremony for its newest submarine, the RSS Invincible, at the manufacturer ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems facilities in Kiel, Germany. The first of its class, the submarine was especially designed for the shallow waters surrounding Singapore. Three more submarines of the class are under construction.

In March, Japan commissioned its second Asahi-class guided-missile destroyer, which features periscope detection radar and is primarily designed for ASW. Later that month, Japan also commissioned its 10th Soryu-class diesel-electric attack submarine. Japan also participated in a trilateral ASW exercise with the RN and the US Navy in the middle of March. A US Navy maritime patrol aircraft, a RN ASW frigate, and a JMSDF’s destroyer, P-1 maritime patrol aircraft, and submarine participated in the exercise held in the Western Pacific. This is the second iteration of the trilateral exercise, with the first held in December last year in the waters south of Japan.

Maritime Economy and Security in the South China Sea

Amidst the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, resource extraction in the area continues, though not without being affected by security moves and considerations by states. 

In January, the Stephenson Ocean Security Project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies released a study on the behavior of fishing fleets in the South China Sea. The study revealed that a large number of the Chinese "fishing vessels" in the South China Sea rarely, if at all, participate in actual fishing activities, and spend most of their time anchored and congregating near the occupied features of various countries. The sheer numbers of these "fishing vessels" also do not make sense based on the fishing capacity of the area. While the existence of the Chinese maritime militia is not a secret, the study shows that the militia, which engages in overt paramilitary activities and harasses foreign vessels in the South China Sea, is much larger and persistent than generally believed. Recently the Chinese maritime militia positioned themselves around Pag-asa Island, monitoring the construction and repair in the island being undertaken by the Philippines. They subsequently reduced their numbers after a larger deployment in late December failed to intimidate the Philippines to halt repairs and construction in the island. This suggests that they had settled for monitoring the island.

After the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Oil and Gas Development between the Philippines and China last year, local businessmen have been gearing up to take advantage of new opportunities. Dennis Uy of Phoenix Petroleum announced in late January that he has gained board approval for the formation of a joint venture with China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) for liquefied natural gas projects. Manny Pangilinan, chairman of PXP Energy Corporation, which holds the rights to drill in contested Reed Bank, called for the government to lift the ban on energy exploration in disputed areas in the South China Sea where the company already has a service contract.

In late March, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo offered assistance to Southeast Asian countries that wished to extract oil and gas resources within their Exclusive Economic Zones. He noted that China's ascendancy and control of international waters in the region impedes the development of energy resources by Southeast Asian states, and that the US wants to promote energy security in the region while helping the states avoid debt traps.

Two former Philippine government officials filed a case before the ICC – days before the government’s withdrawal from the treaty - against Chinese President Xi Jinping, to hold him accountable for the devastating environmental destruction caused by the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Vietnam formally lodged an official protest against China following the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat chased by a Chinese Maritime Surveillance (CMS) vessel near the Paracel Islands. Vietnam's foreign ministry said the fishing boat was moored when the CMS vessel chased it and fired its water cannon at it. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang disputed this, saying that the fishing boat had already sunk before the Chinese vessel responded, then called on Vietnam to stop making things up and cease illegal fishing activities in the Paracels.

Manila Hosts Several Ships for Goodwill Visits 

Several countries sent ships to dock in Manila for goodwill visits during the first three months of 2019. During the first week of January, Russian Navy anti-submarine ship Admiral Panteleyev, a guided-missile cruiser, and fleet replenishment oiler anchored in Manila for five days of navy-to-navy engagement, capped with a Passing Exercise. A week later, two PLA Navy frigates docked in Manila South Harbor just as the US Navy and the RN finished their coordinated drills in the South China Sea. Near the end of January, a JMSDF destroyer docked in Manila for a three-day goodwill visit. In February, Indian Coast Guard ship Shaunak stayed four days in Manila and held a Passing Exercise with the Philippine Coast Guard.

The US Navy conducted two high-profile visits in March within a week of each other. Aboard USS Blue Ridge, the amphibious command ship and flagship of the 7th Fleet of the US Navy, they visited Manila for talks with national security officials and top officers of the Philippine Navy. A week later, a US Navy mine countermeasures ship came for similar exchanges about enhancing interoperability.


The reinvigorated presence of the US in the region appears to be aimed at two things; to maintain pressure on China against its aggressive actions in the East and South China Seas, and to reassure its allies and partners of its continued presence in the region. So far, the first of these objectives seems to have been realized, if one looks at the decreased aggressiveness of Chinese responses to US FONOPS near disputed areas. That is not to say that China made no moves of its own, with its early threat of a deployment of missiles and a month-long deep-water exercise. However, none of its later responses were as aggressive or as directly pointed towards the US.  As for reassuring its allies and partners, we have yet to see results, though as programs under ARIA start to roll out, we can expect to see more engagements between the US and countries in the region. For the Philippines, the debate regarding the MDT seem to have died down as Secretary Pompeo gave the assurance that the treaty applies to Philippine aircraft, vessels, and forces in the South China Sea, though Secretary Lorenzana remains adamant in calling for a review, noting that the Philippine could be dragged into a "shooting war" should the conflict between the US and China escalate.

Though initiated years before, Southeast Asian states have begun reaping the fruits of developing submarine warfare capabilities, as several submarines are being commissioned and launched in the region's waters.  The increasing salience of submarine warfare has not escaped the attention of countries outside the South China Sea, as India, Australia, and Japan have also been beefing up their submarine and ASW capabilities. The increasing numbers of submarines in the region increases the chances of possible unplanned encounters or collisions - one only needs to recall the almost collision of USS Decatur and a PLA Luyang-class destroyer late last year. Without anything similar to a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea that governs underwater encounters, and the inherent secrecy regarding submarine operations, the risk for accidents in the region become higher, lending more volatility to security in the region. The Philippines could be left behind playing catch-up with its neighbors, though developing submarine and anti-submarine warfare capabilities have long been in the works.

The importance of the Philippines in regional security was validated by sustained, if not increased, attention from other countries, especially in the form of naval and maritime engagements. In keeping with the government's idea of being a friend to all and enemy to none, the country is building more maritime partnerships with a diverse set of countries. As to how long the government can further sustain this, no one is sure; as regional actors make their moves and the security environment shifts, the window for action narrows, and the Philippines risks being stuck having to make hard choices where it has little to gain and much to lose. It now behooves the government to begin identifying who its most likely friends are based on our national interests: friends whose own interests align well with our own, or can be made to have a stake in ensuring ours.