Testing the Waters

©Moira Garcia Gallaga

On 07 March, 220 Chinese vessels were reported to be moored in Julian Felipe Reef which is within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea. A diplomatic protest was filed on 21 March and the Department of Foreign Affairs summoned the Chinese Ambassador on 13 April to express displeasure over the continued presence of Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef. By 13 April, it was noted that only a handful of Chinese vessels remain in the reef.  

In the weeks that followed, Chinese vessels continued to be spotted in maritime areas claimed by our country. Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana have been very vocal in telling the Chinese government to order their ships to vacate the area. The situation out at sea eventually calmed down though the Philippine Coast Guard has stepped up patrols in the disputed areas.

However, a public debate on current government policy on the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea (SCS/WPS) has broken out with the Government’s policy on the SCS/WPS coming under heavy criticism and scrutiny. There is as much an element of domestic politics in this debate as there is concern over the direction of Philippine foreign policy on the SCS/WPS issue. 

So what do the Chinese make of these public debates in terms of revealing insights regarding where the Philippines stand vis-a-vis their efforts to seek control over a large swathe of the SCS? Was this the intent behind their incursion in March? China was definitely “testing the waters,” not only to send a message, but also to elicit a reaction, to gauge how far they can push the envelope. However, we need to consider that the actions weren’t only directed at us, but to the Americans as well.  

It isn’t a coincidence that this happened a short time after a new US President has been sworn in because it makes perfect sense for Beijing to assess and test the mettle of the new tenant in the White House. What has happened in Julian Felipe Reef is therefore just one piece of a larger puzzle where Beijing is trying to assess Washington’s Indo-Pacific policy and strategy. It was also an opportunity for China to test the commitment of the Americans to its allies in the region.  

Photo via Wikipedia

So yes, the public debates and the ensuing statements coming from the Philippine Government and from those in opposition to current policy may provide the Chinese a better understanding of where they and their SCS policy stands in the Philippines, but if anything, it merely reaffirms what they already know. Nothing new for them in that area. It is likely that the reaction the Chinese are waiting to see from the Philippines is one that involves the fate of the VFA, when the six-month suspension of the abrogation of the VFA that was announced in November expires in May.  

Compared to debates and statements on our SCS/WPS policy, what happens to the VFA is a more relevant development the Chinese are more interested in because termination or continued effectivity of the VFA has a more profound impact to their plans and strategy in relation to the SCS/WPS area than mere policy statements that can easily change or be modified.  

Terminating the VFA under these circumstances would possibly be perceived by the Chinese Government as a lack of confidence in our long-time ally. This will be seen as an opening to further drive a wedge between the Philippines and the US.  

The Chinese know that the fate of the VFA was to be decided soon and stirred trouble at Julian Felipe Reef as a test and to create conditions that the Philippines will be forced to consider in its decision on the VFA.

On 14 June, they got their answer. For the third time, President Duterte suspended the abrogation of the VFA for another 6 months. You can read my take on that particular development in my article published on 07 July on the Philippine Daily Inquirer titled, “VFA gets another lease on life.”

11 July 2021

“VFA gets another lease on life”

©Moira G. Gallaga

Here is my take on the third suspension of the abrogation of the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement. It was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 07 July 2021.

Do You Believe in a World Without Wars

©Moira G Gallaga

Note: I stumbled very recently on this very short piece that I wrote back in 12 February 2012 as I was going over some of my old postings. With the recent conflicts and war in Gaza, Myanmar and other parts of the globe right now, notwithstanding the presence of a pandemic, it caught my attention. Amazing how the passing of 9 years lets you see something you write in a different way. I don’t see myself writing this today, at least not in the manner I have expressed it back then. I still get the point I was trying to make all those years ago, about the importance of individual agency and that the trade-off would be conflict and war. However, I would have made more effort to stress that while we should celebrate and value individuality and independent thought, violence and conflict should never be tolerated as a natural outcome of this process. I guess the adage that one mellows with age is true. Well, it is in my case based on this post, hahaha.

“The first casualty of war is the truth.” – Aeschylus

Unfortunately, war is and has been a constant companion of humanity. In my opinion, the absence of war will only mean one thing, humanity as a whole has become one mindless and single-minded entity. War is a consequence of conflict and conflict results from a clash of ideas, thoughts, necessity, etc… As long as humans are capable of independent thought then conflict is inevitable. This means to have a world without war is to have mankind thinking alike and in synch with each other, like a hive of some sort. I think I’d prefer to have the privilege and freedom to think and decide for myself, even if this makes the world a dangerous place to some extent. Besides, if we have the capacity to wage war, then we also have a capacity to wage peace. It’s simply a matter of finding a balance between the two.

“History is written by the victors.” Attributed to Winston Churchill but actual origin unknown

20 May 2021