The latter half of 2019 saw players in the region flex their capabilities and make their moves in the South China Sea. American presence and partnership with states in the region were sustained, though the United States’ continued commitment to the region is put into question. Domestically, the Duterte administration’s policy with China continues to receive flak, and security concerns in the country’s southern waters have reemerged.


The U.S.’ Continued Presence in Southeast Asia

The U.S. remains present in the region’s waters through the U.S. Navy’s deployments in the region and in its engagements with Southeast Asian states. Continuations of the U.S.’ key programs with the region like the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training Exercises (SEACAT) and the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Exercises (CARAT), as well as the inauguration of the ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise co-led by the Royal Thai Navy, reinforced the America’s role as a significant security partner and guarantor. The U.S. also continues to challenge China’s maritime claims by conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the Spratlys and the Paracels.

With the Philippines, the U.S. held the 2019 iteration of the KAMANDAG Exercises in Cavite and Tarlac, while the Philippine and U.S. Navies conducted Maritime Training Exercise Sama-Sama in Palawan. Both exercises saw the participation of the Japan Ground Self-Defence Forces and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Forces, respectively, allowing for enhanced interactions between two of the U.S.’ partners in the region.

Despite the U.S. military’s continued presence, American commitment to the region is put into question when it sent its lowest level delegation to Asian summitries during the Trump presidency in spite of the supposed importance of the Indo-Pacific to the United States. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s visit to key partners and allies following the summits did little to reassure partners that the U.S. would match its rhetoric on the importance of the Indo-Pacific with action.


Duterte, China, and Philippine Maritime Security

President Duterte’s administration continued to receive flak for the administration’s actions regarding the sinking of F/B Gem-Ver and the supposed verbal agreement between Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping allowing Chinese fisherman access to the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in exchange for access to Scarborough Shoal. These events and continued public pressure for the government to raise and assert the 2016 Tribunal Ruling led to the disappointing effort of President Duterte to discuss the issue during his 5th visit to China. The Palace continued to defend the President’s softer and almost appeasement-like policies towards China by arguing that the alternative would be war, and we would be better off by focusing on economic cooperation and maintaining peace.

Scrutiny of the administration’s policies flared again when reports of harassment by the Chinese Coast Guard against a Filipino-crewed oil tanker that sailed near Scarborough Shoal were reported in the media. The Chinese Coast Guard’s identification of themselves as naval warships, their refusal to recognize innocent passage, and attempts to cut off and tail a civilian ship further eroded safety and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Palace dismissed the issue as none of their concern as the ship was not a Philippine vessel, despite its Filipino crew and the implications of the Chinese Coast Guard’s actions in Philippine and surrounding waters.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines reported that there have been several Chinese warships, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, that intruded in Philippine waters, especially passages near Balabac Island in Palawan and through the Sibutu Passage. The military, however, does not consider the actions hostile, even though the passages have been called deceptive due to the lack of diplomatic clearance and the intentional dodging of detection through deactivated Automatic Identification Systems, which therefore disqualify them from being considered innocent passages.

Concerns regarding Chinese investment in strategic areas remain, with the Philippine Navy (PN) raising concerns about planned developments in Fuga Island in Cagayan facing the Luzon Strait, and Grande and Chiquita Islands at the mouth of Subic Bay. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that he had not been consulted by the business community regarding these investments. Similar concerns were raised in the development of Sangley Point airport, within Manila Bay and beside Navy and Air Force facilities, which would be developed by a consortium partly led by China Communications Construction, a Chinese state-owned company.


Philippine Maritime Modernization

The modernization of assets for the PN and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) also continued through the latter half of the year. French Shipbuilder Ocea launched the PCG’s most modern offshore patrol vessel, the BRP Gabriela Silang, while the PN has commenced with the testing of the BRP Conrado Yap, its first modern corvette. The PN also commissioned eight amphibious assault vehicles from Korea and three locally built multipurpose attack craft fitted with Spike missiles. An agreement to upgrade the current Del Pilar class vessels has also been signed with Hanwha Systems, while Hyundai Heavy Industries has launched the second Jose Rizal-class frigate for the PN, the future BRP Antonio Luna.

The armed forces were also keen on making use of the newly commissioned equipment as soon as possible, deploying the amphibious assault vehicles during the KAMANDAG Exercises with the U.S. Marine Corps and during the country’s first joint military exercise involving all three major services, Exercise DAGIT-PA 03-19. Further highlighting the armed force’s efforts to increase interoperability between relevant forces, the PN and PCG inaugurated their first joint maritime exercise, Exercise PAGKAKAISA, to harmonize their operations and strengthen collaboration.


Other Players Make their Move

States around the South China Sea made moves to strengthen their position or signal preparedness to address challenges to their interests in the area. Indonesia’s National Police deployed its largest patrol vessel to serve the waters in the Riau archipelago and around the Natuna Island cluster, where it consistently faced foreign fishing vessels and where China insists there are contested waters, which Indonesia refuses to recognize.

Vietnam and China were in a stand-off in the Paracels when a Chinese survey ship repeatedly entered the Vietnamese EEZ. This led to a months-long stand-off between the Vietnamese and Chinese Coast Guards in the area. During this period of heightened tensions, Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Le Hoai Trung said that they mulled exploring legal action under UNCLOS against China, which the Chinese Foreign Ministry strongly rebuked.

In addition to its constant deployment of coast guard, survey, and maritime militia ships, China continued to make several moves to project power in the South China Sea, from firing anti-ship missiles from its man-made structures to deploying an unmanned, tethered aerostat in Mischief Reef. It also commissioned its second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, which would base in Yulin Naval Base in Hainan, facing the South China Sea.

The Royal Malaysian Navy conducted naval exercises near disputed maritime areas, including its first known firings of anti-ship missiles since 2014. They also conducted the 2019 iteration of their Maritime Training Exercises, with the new inclusion of interoperability exercises between the Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard. Malaysia then closed the year with an individual partial submission for an extended continental shelf in the South China Sea, which contained language that implicitly supported the 2016 Tribunal Award that China refuses to recognize.


What to Look Forward to After 2019

Many have called into question the usefulness of the U.S.’ FONOPs in the South China Sea, considering that it has neither stemmed further encroachment from China in the region, nor has it got China to back down on the expansive claims that the operations were supposedly challenging. With American military overstretch across the globe and the seeming disjunct between the rhetoric of the importance of the Indo-Pacific and the snub the Trump administration gave Southeast Asia’s predilection for summitries, it is important to reflect on what American presence in the region will mean in the future.

However, some introspection also needs to be done on what the relevant ASEAN states have, or have not done, to challenge China’s claims themselves. Chinese survey ships and escorting coast guard ships have repeatedly entered Vietnamese and Malaysian EEZs, disrupting drilling rig operations in the area. Malaysia rarely challenges these incursions, and Vietnam has previously halted operations near Vanguard Reef under Chinese pressure. Acquiescence to Chinese actions in the South China Sea only allow for the legitimization of their impunity. This acquiescence is best seen in the limp responses of the Duterte administration to the actions of Chinese vessels, whether Coast Guard, or civilian fishing vessel, or something in between. Raising the specter of a futile war with China to justify a “peace-at-all-costs” approach only further feeds the perception that the administration’s policy with China is appeasement by any other name.

Nothing better illustrates the gains China has made with the other claimant states’ acquiescence than the reclaimed features it controlled in the Spratlys, which were originally justified as facilities for the provision of civilian public goods in the South China Sea. They served as a refueling station for the Haiyang Dizhi 8, the survey ship at the center of the months-long standoff between China and Vietnam, showing that China is more than willing to use the facilities to conduct extended pressure campaigns on neighboring states.

But perhaps the winds are changing. Vietnam, the incoming chair of ASEAN, stood its ground during the stand-off until the Chinese survey ship and its coast guard escorts left Vietnamese EEZ. Malaysia’s extended continental shelf submission implicitly affirms some decisions from the 2016 Tribunal Award and could force China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea through the legal wringer once again. While the cynical view may be valid in that claimant countries are rushing towards these actions to beat further restrictions as the China-imposed deadline for the Code of Conduct negotiations at 2021 looms, it does bear noting that these actions still serve as pushback against China’s claims and its justifications.

Vietnam’s chairmanship of ASEAN, and its handling of the Code of Conduct negotiations, will be something to watch, considering its actions in the past six months. Perhaps it is high time to remind ASEAN states, especially those with claims in the South China Sea, to actually bother acting like a bloc instead of ten separate states. It will be a hollow victory to concede to Chinese conditions that infringe on other claimant states’ sovereignty and sovereign rights just to make sure that Beijing continues to talk to ASEAN so that we can continue claiming ASEAN centrality.

Another development towards standing up against Chinese actions in the South China Sea is the increasing salience of coast guards and maritime police in the region, perhaps as a response to China’s gray zone tactic of deploying its maritime militia to enforce its claims. Previously mentioned instances of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines deploying and developing their coast guards might be something we should come to expect moving forward, and will be bolstered by the US’s increasing use of coast guard diplomacy in the region. Admittedly, ASEAN navies and coast guards lag far behind China in terms of sheer numbers and capabilities, highlighting the importance of partners and allies and the benefits they bring, from joint exercises, increased interoperability, and support. In terms of increasing our capabilities, South Korea has emerged as an important partner, with many of our newest assets coming from their shipyards. These developments are extremely welcome, and we should continue tapping our partners to complement and enhance our capabilities, considering reports that piracy and kidnapping in the Sulu Sea have resumed after a long lull.

With countries like Vietnam increasing and strengthening its cooperation with other states, one would shudder to think where we would be left if we fail to maintain rapport with our current partners in search for newer ones, neglecting the moon while counting the stars.

Building our capabilities is only one part of ensuring the security and safety of our waters and the waters that surround us. There must also be a strategy and approach that is comprehensive in its scope in terms of the sectors and actors involved. And in this area, the Philippines continues to be lacking. The country began 2019 contemplating the security implications of a Chinese takeover of Hanjin’s operations in Subic Bay after Chinese companies showed interest, sparking discussions about what role the defense establishment should have in these kinds of investments in strategic locations and facilities. More than half a year later, the same discussions are still being held, with Chinese investments flagged in several locations straddling our country’s strategic waterways and the defense establishment remaining out of the loop in these discussions.

Hopefully, the coming year will be better.