PH told to add bite to bark in dealing with China aggression

MANILA, Philippines—The Philippines would have to add bite to its bark in defending its sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea against China’s continued aggression and expansion through the gray zone strategy.

The lingering presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels at Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, which is inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), has pushed the Philippine government to file diplomatic protests and send more patrols to the area.


It also led to a verbal tussle between Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and the Chinese Embassy in Manila, which had given insulting replies to the Philippine defense chief.

The Department of Foreign Affairs on Monday (April 12) summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to express “utmost displeasure” over the continued presence of Chinese vessels inside the Philippines’ EEZ.

Collin Koh, a Singapore-based maritime security expert, said it was important for the Philippines “to signal more resolutely to China that there is resolve in trying to address the situation decisively.”

“One way to do that is going beyond putting out statements of the phone calls of the US and Philippines top decision makers,” he said at an online forum hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.

The Philippines and United States, he said, could present concrete steps being taken on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which is currently being renegotiated after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced its termination in 2020. The VFA, however, remains in effect after the effectivity of its termination had been suspended twice.

The US, the Philippines’ longest treaty ally, recently warned China against its continued aggression in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, and said any attack on the Philippines would trigger the operation of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and Philippines.

The two countries are bound to defend each other in the event of an armed attack by a hostile party under the treaty. One of the operating mechanisms for the treaty is the VFA, which covers the conduct of US troops inside the Philippines.

Last week, the Philippine Department of National Defense said it could seek the help of the United States and other allies to protect its interests in the West Philippine Sea against Chinese aggression.

Koh said the Philippines could also reverse some of its policies that were enacted in the early days of the Duterte administration, such as a ban on Philippine military participation in US-led exercises in the South China Sea.


The Philippine government’s strategic communication has to be coherent and properly coordinated with ground actions like consistent maritime patrols and surveillance, he said.

“This is to ensure that even if China pulls out its ships it will not come back in the future,” he said.

Koh said that based on his observations as an outsider, the government’s strategic communications “lacks consistency and coherence.”

For instance, while top Philippine defense and foreign affairs officials could take a tough stance through their remarks against China, these could be easily reversed by Duterte who, as President, determines Philippine foreign policy.

“If there is consistency between the Palace and the secretaries and the rest of government agencies, if there’s a coherent statement that comes out, these could have much greater impact on what China is doing,” he said.

Duterte, however, has pivoted away from Washington and instead embraced China supposedly in exchange for loans and economic deals. The loans, however, have yet to materialize.

Despite China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea, the Duterte administration “tolerated China’s duplicitous strategy” and continued to cling to what Duterte officials had described as a “special relationship” with Beijing, according to opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros at the same online forum.

“ talking about this so-called ‘special friendship’, the Palace is telegraphing its incapacity – or unwillingness – to defy Beijing, further emboldening the latter’s imperial ambitions,” she said.

“China is the bully pretending to be your best friend – and bullies feed off weakness and insecurity. It’s time to say enough is enough. There is another way,” she added.


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