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