An American carrier group entered the South China Sea three days ago to carry out another FONOP
(freedom of navigation operations) near areas China is trying to take from other nations that have long owned them. This is the second FONOP for this carrier group in the South China Sea this year. In 2020 the U.S. carried a record 13 FONOPS in the South China Sea. This was up from nine in 2019. Even more FONOPS were carried out in the South China Sea by other nations opposing the Chinese claims.
In addition to more FONOPS, in mid-2020 the Americans took a stronger stand against Chinese aggression by declaring Chinese claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea as completely unlawful. This included the Chinese campaign of bullying other nations to gain exclusive control of these resources. In 2016 an international court ruled against China and stated that occupying uninhabitable rocks and building artificial islands did not confer an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Ownership of “rocks” gets you, at best 22 kilometers of territorial waters from the edge of each rock rather than 360 kilometers for EEZ rights. Before this change the U.S. merely called for China to comply with the court ruling, something China said it would not do even before the court completed its deliberations. The Americans did continue to carry out aerial and naval FONOP with warships to assert the right of innocent passage. This annoyed the Chinese, who claimed most of the South China Sea was under Chinese control and no foreign ship or aircraft could enter without permission. China has been claiming areas long recognized as belonging to Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. That has caused all these nations, plus the United States, Japan and South Korea to form an alliance to halt Chinese aggression.
In response to all this opposition, China has become more aggressive in word and deed. This includes a January 2021 announcement that a new Chinese law authorized their navy and coast guard to use lethal force to “protect” Chinese coastal waters, including those that are disputed by other nations. In other words, Chinese coast guard and navy vessel commanders have the authority to open fire on trespassers, even when international courts have declared China the outlaw and trespasser in the South China Sea. Until this new “permission to open fire” law, Chinese armed coast guard and navy vessels had only been used to intimidate “trespassers” and had never opened fire. There has been violence in the form of bumping or even ramming “trespassers”. This has led to the other countries threatening to send warships to defend their territory. Until now this would usually cause the Chinese warships to back off. But the new law allows Chinese captains to order crews to prepare for combat and use the fire control radars to concentrate on possible targets. In the Chinese playbook this means the Chinese want to goad someone else to open fire first, which would make China the designated victim (according to Chinese media) and justified in unleashing violent and probably overwhelming retaliation.
The latest escalation is the use of large (over 200) numbers of fishing boats inside the Julian Felipe Reef, which is 324 kilometers west of Palawan, one the main Filipino islands. The reef is part of the Spratly Island. The nearest undisputed Chinese territory is 1,148 kilometers away from the reef. China is using illegal claims on other South China Sea islands or reefs to justify its claim Julian Felipe Reef. In this case there is another problem. Julian Felipe Reef was not legally “land” that could be claimed until about five years ago. As happens often in the South China Sea, reefs grow and shrink because of the natural movement of sand. Parts of Julian Felipe Reef had long emerged from the water only during low tide. According to international law, that did not qualify as “land”. There are suspicions that China covertly did some dredging at Julian Felipe Reef to get the permanent sand to show. This is unlikely because commercial satellite coverage of the South China Sea has been nearly constant for over a decade.
This satellite coverage and the growing number of visits by Filipino air force and coast guard patrols plus fishermen operating there has provided an accurate record of increased Chinese activity there. This has shown Chinese fishing boats and naval militia (fishing boats not currently equipped for fishing) showing up at Julian Felipe Reef since November 2020. By mid-March 2021 there were over 200 Chinese naval militia fishing boats inside the reef. Most of them were lashed together in groups of five to twenty boats that formed patterns preventing real fishing boats from operating inside the reef. Most fishing boats in the South China Sea are trawler type boats. These boats deploy their nets and then move through an area containing a lot of fish and haul their catch on board and into a refrigerated compartment. Many of the Chinese militia boats are formally called "freezer trawlers." These ships are up to 100 meters (320 feet) long and have facilities onboard to store hundreds of tons of frozen fish. These ships normally stay at sea months at a time and have crews of 14-30.
The number of Chinese trawlers has expanded enormously since 1985 when there were only 13. Now there are over 2,400 of them operating worldwide. China helped with this expansion by subsidizing ocean-going fishing boats. Those subsidies have since been withdrawn but meanwhile, the number of larger (than 100 meter) freezer trawlers has grown and these are meant for use in far distant waters.
China claimed all those Chinese fishing boats were taking shelter from bad weather. This is often the case with reefs in the South China Sea, but there was no correlation between the presence of Chinese boats inside the reef and the actual weather in the area. The Chinese claims don’t stand up to close scrutiny. With so many cellphone videos and high-res images from aircraft and warships available, all China can do is keep lying and do it aggressively and with assurance that no one will do much about it.
The Chinese naval militia has been a major factor in Chinese intimidation operations in the South China Sea. This militia has been around since the 1950s but never used this aggressively. For example, during the first three months of 2019 China deployed 900 navy, coast guard and naval militia ships around Pagasa Island to block access to fishing areas that Filipinos have been using for centuries. International law makes it clear that these are Filipino waters but the Chinese naval effort, and base constructed on Pagasa, challenge Filipino ownership blatantly and often physically.
Since 2015 China has hired several hundred Chinese fishing boats and their crews as a part-time naval militia to conduct a blockage of bits of land in the South China Sea that the Philippines physically occupies, hoping to block supplies and force the Filipinos to evacuate these outposts so that China can take possession. The Chinese fishermen don’t mind the militia work, seeing it as something of a paid vacation with overtones of patriotic service to the state. The militia boats are not true volunteers. When the government “requests” a Chinese fishing boat work for the militia the boat owner complies. Sometimes boat owners grumble when they are called up during a prime fishing season, but refusal is not an option and they make the best of it.
The Philippines appears to get most of the unwanted Chinese attention in the South China Sea because the Philippines has the most to lose. In terms of land area, the 7,600 islands that comprise the Philippines amount to only 300,000 square kilometers (120,000 square miles) of land area. Compare this to China, with 9.6 million square kilometers of land. According to international law, the Philippines controls (via its EEZ or Exclusive Economic Zone) water areas covering 2.26 million square kilometers. By the same standards the Chinese EEZ waters comprises 877,000 square kilometers. The Philippines is also the weakest (in military terms) nation China is seizing territory from, and their mutual defense treaty with the United States is not always adequate to deal with the Chinese tactics. Moreover, the American government can change readily every four years because of presidential elections. The current U.S. president is seen as less steadfast in dealing with China. So far that has not been the case, but the new American government has only been in power since January 2021.
April 6, 2021: President Duterte announced that the Philippines would seek a peaceful solution to the dispute over “Whitsun Reef”. Duterte deliberately used the international name for the reef, which is also known as
Julian Felipe Reef because that is what Filipinos call it and until China came along the Philippines had the strongest claim on the, until recently underwater, reef. Such a reef is valuable because it is prime fishing grounds and does provide some shelter from large waves during bad weather. Duterte has tried playing nice with the Chinese but so far has been burned more often than benefitted from this approach.
April 5, 2021:
In the north (Isabela province) troops accepted the voluntary surrender of two of the most senior NPA (New Peoples Army) leaders. The surrenders took place separately over the last few days. The NPA has long been active in this area and were now generally regarded as bandits who still believed in communism.
April 3, 2021: The Filipino Defense Secretary demanded that Chinese vessels leave
Julian Felipe Reef. China quickly responded that the reef belonged to China, the Chinese ships were seeking shelter from bad weather and the Philippines had no right to make demands. There were still 44 Chinese vessels inside the reef and the weather had been calm for over a week. This is typical Chinese behavior towards the Philippines.
April 2, 2021: In the south (Davao de Oro province) troops encountered sixteen armed NPA rebels and after a brief gun battle the communist rebels fled, leaving behind two assault rifles and other equipment. Apparently, some of the rebels were wounded and dropped gear to remain mobile. That is what often happens in situations like this. Among the items left behind were useful documents describing local NPA activities. The NPA has been active for 52 years, during which their activities left over 50,000 civilians, 13,000 soldiers and police and over 20,000 NPA members dead or missing. The communist rebels are fading away, but slowly and remnants have turned to banditry while still claiming to be communist rebels.
April 1, 2021: In the south (
Maguindanao province) two weeks of renewed BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) violence has caused 66,000 people to flee their homes to avoid the fighting. As recently as February eleven local BIFF members surrendered, along with their weapons. The amnesty program makes it possible to the eleven to return to civilian life if none have committed major crimes. The former BIFF members complained of constant pressure from the security forces and no financial support from BIFF leadership. It is unclear how many active BIFF members there still are in the area but two weeks of intermittent gunfire at troops near inhabited areas has caused panic among local civilians. The BIFF gunmen keep moving, avoiding a prolonged fight with the troops. It appears there are at least a dozen diehard BIFF members in the area and the army has called on the local Bangasamoro government to help.
BIFF was originally formed to demand independence for the Moslems in the south. By 2014 the majority of Moslems and Christians in the Philippines agreed to an autonomous Moslem region on the southwest coast of Mindanao (the large southern island) and the string of smaller islands (Sulu, Basilan, Tawi, Tawi) extending from southwestern Mindanao towards Malaysia. The new Moslem entity (Bangasamoro) has more autonomy, but makes the Moslems down there responsible to maintaining the peace. This is no small matter because, more than elsewhere in the Philippines, the Moslem south has long had many more clan militias that believed it was their right to engage in private wars. Not all the clans share the official attitudes about who has the right to make war in Bangasamoro.
Bangasamoro governs the four million Moslems in Mindanao and even more Christians. Filipino Moslems are outnumbered by Christians who had moved south during the last half century. Nationwide there are about 11 million Moslems and over 90 million Christians. The Christian Filipinos are better organized, more industrious and more economically successful. The Moslems believe they should run Mindanao even if they are the minority, because Mindanao is the local "Islamic homeland." While some in the government are willing to concede this, the Christian majority in Mindanao (and the rest of the Philippines) does not. Because of this groups like BIFF, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Abu Sayyaf are treated as outlaws in Bangasamoro and have lost support and members since 2014, but are still active.
March 28, 2021: The government revealed that air force jets had been making daily flights over
Julian Felipe Reef. Filipino warships had also increased patrols near the Reef. No Chinese warplanes or warships had been encountered even though China had warned the Philippines to keep its military ships and aircraft away from areas that China claims ownership of. A meeting between Chinese and Filipino military officials to discuss the situation ended with the Chinese repeating that the Chinese vessels were not military and that there was no Chinese military activity around Whitsun Reef.
March 23, 2021: In the south (Tawi-Tawi province) troops tracked down two Abu Sayyaf gunmen and after a brief gun battle, killed both of them.
In the north (Isabela province) troops and police encountered a large group of armed NPA members and in a three-hour gun battle killed six of them. The others fled, some leaving weapons and equipment behind.
March 20, 2021: In the south (Tawi-Tawi province) marines found a group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen and four Indonesian sailors they were holding for ransom. The five Abu Sayyaf gunmen and four Indonesian hostages were caught after the group attempted to flee by boat from nearby Sulu province in an attempt to reach nearby Malaysia. One hostage was left behind and rescued by troops. After over a day at sea, their boat capsized in bad weather off Tawi-Tawi province and the marines caught up with the group shortly after they came ashore. After a brief gun battle the Abu Sayyaf leader was mortally wounded and his four followers surrendered with the remaining hostages. The dead Abu Sayyaf leader was one of the most active planners of kidnapping operations in the area and had been long sought by the security forces.