The Chinese ships settled down like unwanted guests who did not want to leave.
More appeared as the days went on. They were just fishing boats, China said, even though they didn’t seem to be fishing. Dozens even got together in neat rows, seeking shelter from storms that never came.
Not so long ago, China made its claims on the South China Sea by building and fortifying man-made islands in waters that have also been claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Your strategy now is to reinforce these outposts by flooding the disputed waters with ships and effectively challenging the other countries to evict them.
The aim is to achieve through overwhelming presence what diplomacy or international law could not. And to a certain extent it seems to be working.
“Beijing is pretty clear that if it applies force and pressure for a long enough period of time, it will oust the Southeast Asians,” said Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington followed developments in the South China Sea. “It’s insidious.”
China’s actions reflect the country’s growing confidence under its leader, Xi Jinping. They could test the Biden government as well as Beijing’s neighbors in the South China Sea, who are increasingly dependent on China’s strong economy and supplies of Covid-19 vaccines.
The most recent incident occurred in the past few weeks around Pentecost, a boomerang-shaped feature that only appears over water at low tide. At one point in March, 220 Chinese ships are said to have anchored around the reef, sparking protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, both of whom have claims there, as well as from the United States.
The Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana described her presence as a “clear provocation”. The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry accused China of violating the country’s sovereignty and demanded the departure of the ships.
In the past week, some had left, but many stayed, according to satellite photos from Maxar Technologies, a Colorado-based company. Others moved to another reef just a few kilometers away, while a new swarm of 45 Chinese ships was spotted 100 miles northeast on another Philippines-controlled island, Thitu, according to satellite photos and Filipino officials.
“The Chinese ambassador has a lot to explain,” Lorenzana said in a statement on Saturday.
The build-up has fueled tensions in a region that, along with Taiwan, threatens to form another focal point in the deepening confrontation between China and the United States.
Although the United States has not taken a position on disputes in the South China Sea, it has criticized China’s aggressive tactics there, including the militarization of its bases. For years, the United States has sent Navy warships on routine patrols to challenge China’s enforced right to restrict military activities there – three times since President Biden took office in January.
Undersecretary of State Antony J. Blinken expressed his support for the Philippines through the presence of the Chinese ships. “We will always stand by our allies and work for the rules-based international order,” he wrote on Twitter.
The build-up has highlighted the further erosion of the Philippines’ control over the disputed waters, which could become a problem for the country’s President Rodrigo Duterte.
The country’s Ministry of Defense sent two planes and a ship to Whitsun to document the construction, but did not intervene otherwise. It is not known if the Vietnamese armed forces responded.
Critics say China’s disregard for Filipino claims reflects the failure of Duterte’s efforts to adjust to the leadership of the Communist Party in Beijing.
“People need to hear from the commander-in-chief himself, a coward from China but a bully from his own people,” said Senator Leila de Lima, Mr Duterte’s most determined political opponent. Mr Duterte has not raised the matter publicly, although his spokesman indicated that quiet efforts were being made to defuse the situation.
China has wiped off the protests. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Chinese fishermen “have been fishing all the time” in the waters near the reef. Officials in the Philippines and experts said there was no evidence.
Whitsun is part of an atoll called Union Banks, about 175 nautical miles from Palawan, a Philippine island. The Philippines, China, and Vietnam each claim the atoll is in their country’s Exclusive Economic Zones, but only China and Vietnam have established a regular physical presence there, giving everyone a safe, if not legal, advantage in enforcing control.
Vietnam has occupied four islands in the atoll since the 1970s, while China has set up two outposts on previously submerged reefs as part of its 2014 dredging program for seven man-made islands. Two of the outposts – the Vietnam-occupied Grierson Reef and the China-occupied Hughes Reef – are less than three nautical miles apart.
An international tribunal, convened under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ruled in 2016 that China’s expansive claim to almost all of the South China Sea had no legal basis, even though it had stopped dividing the area among its various claimants. China has based its claims on a “nine-dash line” drawn on maps prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
A Philippine patrol first reported the large number of ships on Whitsun on March 7th. According to Mr. Poling, satellite photos have shown a regular, albeit lesser, Chinese presence on the reef over the past year.
As of March 29, 45 ships remained in Pentecost, the National Task Force West Philippines Sea announced on Wednesday, an agency reporting to the Philippine President’s office. On that day, the task force counted 254 ships and four Chinese warships in the Spratlys, an archipelago with more than 100 islands, cays and other outcrops between the Philippines and Vietnam.
The task force said the 254 vessels were not fishing vessels, as Beijing claimed, but part of the Chinese maritime militia, an alleged civilian force that has become an integral tool in China’s new maritime strategy. Many of these boats are operated unarmed by reservists or others who carry out orders from the Coast Guard and the People’s Liberation Army.
“They can engage in illegal activities at night and their continued (swarming) presence can cause irreparable damage to the marine environment,” the task force’s statement said.
The presence of so many Chinese ships is said to be intimidating. “By having them there and spreading them over these bodies of water around the reefs that occupy the others, or around oil and gas fields or fishing grounds, you keep pushing the Filipinos and Vietnamese out,” Poling said.
“When you are a Filipino fisherman, you are always harassed by these guys,” he said. “They always maneuver a little too close and blow horns at you. At some point you just give up and stop fishing there. “
Aside from patrols and speeches, Mr. Duterte’s government does not appear to be eager to face China. His spokesman, Harry Roque, reiterated Chinese claims that the ships were only seeking temporary shelter.
“We hope the weather will improve,” he said, “and in a spirit of friendship we hope that your ships will leave the area.”
The Philippines have become increasingly dependent on Chinese trade and are big in the fight against the pandemic.
The first batch of Covid-19 vaccines arrived in Manila from China with great enthusiasm on Monday. Up to four million cans are expected to arrive by May, some of them donations. China’s Ambassador Huang Xilian attended the arrival of the vaccines and later met with Mr. Duterte.
“China is encroaching on our sea zone, but mitigating it by sending vaccines,” said Antonio Carpio, a retired Supreme Court judge who is an expert on maritime disputes. “It’s part of their public relations effort to mitigate the blow, but we shouldn’t fall for it.”