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Chinese vessels are pictured moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, on March 27, 2021. Photo: National Task Force-West Philippine Sea via AP

South China Sea: will the Whitsun Reef dispute come between Beijing and Manila?

  • The growing row sparked by Chinese vessels in the South China Sea is causing a headache for Philippine President Duterte, who has been nurturing ties with Beijing since 2016
  • Beijing’s next moves could affect next year’s Philippine polls, analysts say, and Duterte’s antagonism towards the US could hurt him

For Philippine defence officials, it was a replay of an old nightmare. Early last month, more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels were sighted anchored off the Whitsun Reef, a boomerang-shaped coral formation within Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands.

The fleet, which had been moored there for weeks in clusters without doing any fishing, reportedly included ships from the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, which Beijing uses to seize maritime territory non-violently.

Beijing says the ships are sheltering from bad weather, and that they are not militia vessels.

Philippine military vows to continue aerial patrols after Chinese warning

“Satellite imagery made available in the public domain shows the Chinese boats have been entering and exiting the area at will, virtually unobstructed, since late last year,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). It was clear that at least some of the crews were maritime militia, he added.

The incident was reminiscent of a similar action in 2012, when Chinese vessels inundated the Scarborough Shoal, also within the Philippine EEZ, and blocked Filipino fisherfolk’s access. The ships never left, and Manila lost control of the shoal as well as 38 per cent of its total EEZ. Analysts expect China to build an artificial island base on the shoal.

A satellite image shows Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef on March 23, 2021. Photo: Maxar Technologies/EPA-EFE

But in the case of Whitsun Reef, China has run into a spirited reaction from the Philippine military as well as other countries.


Also known as the Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines and Niu’e Jiao in China, it is part of the Union Banks, a submerged atoll on which there are currently Chinese and Vietnamese bases and is in turn part of the Spratly Islands – which are contested by six governments.

“China seems to want to use Whitsun Reef … to control the waters and airspace around it,” said Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Koh from the RSIS predicted that China would use the Whitsun Reef “as an anchorage for militia and coastguard vessels to dominate the Union Banks”.


Explained: the history of China’s territorial disputes

Explained: the history of China’s territorial disputes


For the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), it was apparently one reef too many.

“We do not tolerate incursions in our territorial waters from anybody,” said military chief Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana last Wednesday, three days after Manila filed a diplomatic protest with Beijing.


The armed forces later announced it was sending light fighter aircraft to “monitor” the situation as well as ships to maintain “sovereignty patrols”.

On Thursday, Sobejana said the military had documented illegal man-made structures on Union Banks. “These constructions and other activities, economic or otherwise, are prejudicial to peace, good order, and security of our territorial waters,” he said.

The Philippines and China’s overlapping claims in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea. Credit: SCMP

Aaron Jed Rabena, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress think tank, described the sending of fighters as a “strong signal” that Manila was keen to protect its sovereignty.


“The decision by the defence establishment to deploy naval and coastguard assets to the area signifies the country’s resolve to assert its rights,” said Rabena, who is also a member of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations. “Manila is showing that it is better to be damned if you do than be damned if you don’t.”

A senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told This Week in Asia that the defence response was “based on the lessons” of Scarborough and the Mischief Reef, which the Philippines also lost to China in 1995. “That is, the combination of diplomacy and deterrence,” he said.

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Since coming to power in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has forged a close relationship with China, courting billions of dollars in aid and trade, and this year, the donation of Covid-19 vaccines.

He has also been vituperatively antagonistic to the US, saying he was turning away from the Philippines’ traditional ally and moving closer to China. He has threatened to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, which allows American soldiers into the country, and a supplemental Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows US and Filipino troops to train and exercise together.

The Philippines has received hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from the US, and according to the American embassy, the AFP has received US$689 million worth of equipment since 2015. But Duterte said if the US wanted to retain the military agreements, it should quadruple its aid to Manila.

Trade secretary Ramon Lopez last month said China was now the Philippines’ leading trade partner, foremost import supplier and third-largest export market, up from the No 2 position last year.


Some observers think Duterte’s pivot to Beijing may have played a role in emboldening China to encroach on Philippine territory.

“Spratly Islands, Diaoyu, Bay of Bengal: is a storm brewing in Asia-Pacific waters?

Earlier this week, defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana told CNN Philippines that Duterte had met the Chinese ambassador and asked for the removal of the ships because it was “alarming the Filipino people”.

By then, most of the vessels had apparently left. The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) on Monday said patrols had counted 44 maritime militia vessels “moored, anchored, and stationary” at the Whitsun Reef.

Koh from the RSIS said he believed the armed forces “would have liked a more robust response, short of provoking outright conflict”.

“But they are still beholden to Duterte in his capacity as commander-in-chief and touted ‘chief architect’ of foreign policy,” Koh said. “So the AFP will remain hamstrung by the whims and fancies of the Duterte administration’s policy towards China … Whether they agree with this velvet-glove approach to China and its transgressions in the South China Sea is surely up for debate.”

A satellite image shows Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef on March 23, 2021. Photo: Maxar Technologies/EPA-EFE


Although Duterte himself has not spoken out regarding the Whitsun Reef, his officials have attempted to calm the public. Jose Santiago Santa Romana, Manila’s ambassador to China, said in an interview on Philippine state television that there was “no need to panic” and the matter was being addressed through diplomacy.

“I don’t want to give a time frame because this is the subject of diplomatic exchange,” Santa Romana said last week. “It’s confidential, but I expect in [April] we’ll see an improvement in the situation.”

US, Japan and Indonesia ramp up pressure on Beijing over South China Sea

Even amid the diplomatic exchanges, the Philippines has received unsolicited diplomatic support over the matter.

The US embassy on March 23 said “we stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia”. It also accused China of using “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region”.

The US affirmation was immediately followed by statements from Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.


The South China Sea dispute explained

The South China Sea dispute explained

“The South China Sea issues are directly related to peace and stability and a concern for all. Japan strongly opposes any action that heightens tensions,” tweeted Koshikawa Kazuhiko, Tokyo’s ambassador to the Philippines. “We support the enforcement of the rule of law in the sea and work with the international community to protect the free, open, and peaceful seas.”

Canada said it opposed “recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea, including off the coast of the Philippines, that escalate tensions and undermine regional stability and the rules-based international order”.

France and Germany jointly raised their concern “about the most recent developments in the South China Sea which have created tensions between neighbouring countries”.

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According to a senior government official, Manila had not asked for the statements from the other countries. “As far as I know, these countries issued the statements on their own,” said the official, who did not wish to be named.

The Chinese embassy in Manila on March 24 hit out at the series of statements, saying the countries should “understand and respect the facts before you make any comments”. It also described Japan as a “vassal state” of the US.

Koh said the statements by the embassies reflected a growing awareness of Beijing’s behaviour in the South China Sea and increasing concern from the international community over these disputes. “Certainly, we didn’t see as much international support back in 2012 compared to what we see these days,” he said.

A US aircraft launches off the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan while conducting operations in the South China Sea on August 14, 2020. Photo: US Navy

The US support is in contrast to its response in 2012, when Washington dithered about backing Manila over Scarborough Shoal, saying the feature was not a part of Philippine territory.

The RSIS’ Koh said despite Duterte’s current anti-US stance, the Biden administration “probably sees it worthwhile and vital to US national interests to continue to engage the Philippines”.

Poling, the analyst from CSIS, noted that the first call made by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to a Southeast Asian counterpart was to the Philippines’ Teodoro Locsin Jnr.

“And now, the US embassy and US State Department officials have both voiced support for the Philippines and opposition to China’s use of militia at Whitsun Reef,” he said, adding that the backing extended beyond words. “The US is offering the Philippines very substantial capacity-building surveillance support and diplomatic help.”

Former Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario. File photo: AP

Former Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario went even further, proposing on Wednesday that Washington and Manila mount “joint patrols”.

He revealed that under the administration of Benigno Aquino III, which preceded Duterte’s presidency, he had met twice with Blinken, then deputy secretary of state, to discuss the idea. Del Rosario said an agreement was approved but was “shelved by the administration of President Duterte, fearing that China would be displeased”.

“It may now be imperative for us to revisit joint patrols … with our sole treaty ally, to confront the bullying tactics of China,” del Rosario said.

But according to Poling, there was only so much the US could do to directly deter Chinese aggression, with the Duterte administration refusing to implement the EDCA and threatening the VFA. “The No 1 goal of the alliance should be to get EDCA moving, so US and Filipino forces can operate jointly from Philippine bases,” he said.

President Rodrigo Duterte favours ties with China over the United States. Photo: Reuters


The reef dispute is expected to come up in discussions between China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Philippines counterpart Teodoro Locsin Jnr in Fujian province on Friday, with analysts saying both sides will seek a quick and quiet resolution.

At the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s regular press conference on Thursday, spokesperson Hua Chunying highlighted the “traditional friendship” between the Philippines and China in areas such as battling Covid-19.

“Some forces never miss any chance in their attempt to drive a wedge between China and the Philippines. We are sure the Philippines can tell facts from fallacy and won’t fall for their tricks,” she said.

But some analysts believe China will not give up easily. Although most of the ships anchored off the Whitsun Reef have moved out, the NTF-WPS said more than 200 Chinese vessels had dispersed through the Kalayaan Islands in the Philippine EEZ.

Public pressure in the Philippines for the government to take a firmer stance against the latest boat swarm is mounting, so if Beijing plans further moves, there will be consequences on Philippines politics, analysts say.

Duterte, who cannot run in next year’s elections according to the country’s constitution, is already battling a range of domestic crises – and if rumours that his daughter Sara will run to replace him are true, he will need to show the public he can stand up to China when needed, the analysts add.

“There’s a pandemic raging in the Philippines, and Duterte is facing front and centre several other domestic woes including alleged human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings,” said Koh of the RSIS.

“Having this incident now with the Chinese would complicate the domestic position of the incumbent administration, adding pressure on it to show to the public that it’s taking real action to forestall any new Chinese encroachment,” he said. “I don’t think Beijing wants the South China Sea issue to influence the outcome of the election that could potentially herald a new administration unfriendly to it.”

What are rival claimants building on South China Sea islands and reefs?

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, research fellow at Asia Pacific Pathways, said Manila was not likely to lose the Whitsun Reef “in the immediate horizon” given the risk to China-Philippine ties.

“The rupture in otherwise friendly bilateral relations that can be triggered [if China decides] to build structures or exclude Filipino fisherfolk from the reef is a high cost Beijing may not be willing to bear,” he said.

Even so, Koh said Manila had to remain vigilant. “If the Philippines lets down its guard, and if the surveillance gap on Whitsun Reef continues to persist, there’ll surely be an opening for the Chinese to return once they believe the trouble has blown over.”

Santa Romana, the ambassador to China, said the Philippines would push back against friends when it needed to.

“On issues where we have differences or disputes on sovereignty and sovereign rights [with China], we stand our ground and we protest when we need to, we push back when we need to,” he said. “Vigilance is the price of sovereignty.”

Additional reporting by Reuters