Tag Archives: Philippines

US Expands Its Military Footprint Near Taiwan And In South China Sea

Map showing four additional Philippines military bases, Cagayan, Isabela, Palawan and Zambales, that US forces will have access to and Philippines in relation to China

IN THE MORE than 30 years since the Philippines threw out the US military bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay, China has emerged as a military power, especially in the South China Sea, and a potent threat to Taiwan.

Hence the newly announced agreement between Manila and Washington to allow US forces greater access to four as yet unannounced Philippines military bases. They would fill the gap in the chain of defence alliances the United States is building, stretching from South Korea and Japan to Australia in response to China’s growing regional power. and military capabilities.

The announcement followed a meeting in Manila between Philippine President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin.

The bases used are likely to be:

  • Cagayan on the northern tip of Luzon, which faces Taiwan; 
  • Zambales, which faces the Scarborough shoal in what Manila calls the West Philippines Sea and where Beijing has been active in island building; and 
  • Palawan, which faces the Spratly Islands, another area of Chinese activity. 
  • Isabela, to the south of Cagayan, facing eastwards into the Pacific.

US forces already have limited access to five sites in the Philippines under the two countries’ 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. 

The four additions and expanded access will not mean the return of full-blown US bases like Clark Field and Subic Bay, with thousands of US troops permanently (and disruptively) stationed. The bases will be used as operational bases for supply and monitoring activities. Cagayan and Isabela, some 200 miles from Taiwan, would likely become forward operating bases in the event of military conflict over the island. 

The Philippines has to balance its extensive economic relationship with Beijing — President Marcos was in Beijing earlier this month on a three-day state to sign what he said were $22.8 billion in new investment pledges from China and an agreement to promote Chinese tourism to the Philippines — with its growing concern about China’s colonisation and militarisation of the South China Sea.

Since 2014, China has built ten artificial island bases, including one at Mischief Reef, deep inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In December, there were reports of new land reclamation being undertaken in the disputed Spratly Islands.

During Marcos’s state visit, he also signed an agreement to set up a maritime hotline to de-escalate any stand-offs, accidental or otherwise, in the disputed waters.

Beijing is not letting the new base agreement derail its relations with Manila, at least for now. Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning was relatively sanguine when he said:

Out of its selfish agenda, the US side has held up to the cold war. Regional countries should remain vigilant about this and avoid being used by the US.

China knows that Marcos wants to balance his country’s relationships with China and the United States, unlike his recent predecessors who tilted towards China. It will be careful to avoid driving the Philippines into being a fully-fledged defence partner with the United States like Japan and Australia.

Yet on Manila’s part, it, too, has no intention of becoming one.

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China’s Carrots For The Philippines Draw A Sceptical Look

PRESIDENT FERDINAND MARCOS JR of the Philippines has wrapped up a three-day state visit to China.

An agreement was reached during the visit to restart negotiations over joint oil and gas development in non-disputed areas of the South China Sea, although not much is likely to come of it. Likewise, the hotline set up to avert dangerous incidents in disputed areas will likely prove of limited value.

In recent years, existing communication channels failed to prevent significant confrontations at Reed Bank, Whitsun Bank and Iroquois Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.

The Philippines has also raised concerns over reportedly new Chinese land reclamation and construction work in the Spratlys and over what it called the ‘swarming’ of Chinese vessels in disputed waters claimed by the Philippines.

The Philippine navy believes Chinese ships manned by militias have been at the Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal for almost a year.

Away from the thorny defence and security issues, Marcos Jr’s office said he secured USD22.8bn in new investment pledges from China, including USD13.76bn in renewable energy, USD7.32bn in electric vehicles and mineral processing, and USD1.72bn in agriculture.

Precedent suggests that investment promises should be treated with similar scepticism to statements of progress over maritime disputes.

Marcos Jr differs from his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, in pursuing balanced relations between Beijing and Washington rather than tilting towards Beijing.

However, with Marcos Jr facing growing domestic public pressure to shore up defence ties with Washington to defend its South China Sea interests, Beijing is offering carrots, more than wielding this stick to prevent Marcos from turning more to Washington.

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China’s South China Sea Fishing Fleet: How Far Will It Go?

Fishing vessels sail past Zhubi Reef of south China Sea on July 18, 2012. A fleet of fishing vessels from China's southernmost province of Hainan departed from Yongshu Reef on Tuesday night. The fleet arrived at Zhubi Reef at about 10 a.m. Wednesday. The fleet of 30 boats, the largest ever launched from the island province, planned to fish and detect fishery resources near Zhubi Reef. (Xinhua/Wang Cunfu)

The picture above shows two of the 30 vessels that comprise the largest fishing fleet dispatched from Hainan to Zhubi Reef, or Subi Reef, in the Spratly Islands (Nansha to China) in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The 3-story domed building in the background contains a newly installed radar station and a helipad. It towers over the old wharf that China built to establish its claim to the reef. Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan all say the reef lies within their territorial waters. The reef surrounds a lagoon and is above water only at low tide, which is why the building appears to be in the middle of the sea. The sharp eyed may detect the band of lighter blue looking water above the reef itself. The fleet is being protected by the Yuzheng 310, one of the most advanced patrol ships of the Chinese fishery administration.

The 20-day fishing mission is the latest display of assertion of sovereignty by Beijing in the South China Sea. It comes in the immediate wake of a meeting in Cambodia of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), also attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, that failed to reach consensus over how to deal with China over its territorial claims in those waters. Beijing successfully divided to conquer ASEAN on the issue, leaving its fishermen free to sail ahead (and its oil drillers to drill), further testing the diplomatic limits of the Philippines and Vietnam in particular.

Footnote: The new city that China is creating to administer its South China Sea specs of rock and reef is preparing to elect a 60-member city council and mayor later this year, according to the Southern Metropolis Daily.


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Beijing Creates A City In The South China Sea

Photo taken on May 5, 2012 shows the sunset scenery on the Yongxing Island, south China's Hainan Province. The Chinese government has raised the administrative status of Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha islands in the South China Sea from county-level to prefectural-level, according to a Thursday statement. The State Council, or China's cabinet, has approved the establishment of the prefectural-level city of Sansha to administer the three island groups and their surrounding waters, while the government seat will be stationed on Yongxing Island, part of the Xisha Islands, according to a statement from the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The council has abolished the county-level Administration Office for Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha Islands, which was also stationed on Yongxing Island, the statement said. (Xinhua/Hou Jiansen)Start re-labeling your South China Sea maps. In the latest ratcheting up of diplomatic pressure on territorial claims to the mineral rich waters, Beijing has raised the municipal status of its local government that administers the disputed area. A new prefectural level city, Sansha, replaces the existing county-level administration office for the Pratas, Paracel and Spratly Islands–the Dongsha, Xisha and Nanshas to China. Sansha, which will be part of Hainan province, will be based on Woody, or Yongxing Island (shown at sunset earlier this year in the photo), one of the Paracel (Xisha) Islands, as was the existing county-level administration.

Vietnam also lays claim to the Paracels and Spratlys. Hanoi formally incorporated them into the country by law earlier this week, a move that prompted formal protests from China, including summoning Hanoi’s ambassador in Beijing. Taiwan like China claims sovereignty over all three, while the Spratlys are also claimed by the Philippines, which is involved in a maritime standoff with Beijing off the Scarborough Shoal. Temporarily ended by bad weather, that looks set to be resuming.


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Scarborough Shoal Dispute Flares Up Again

Landsat 7 image of Scarborough Shoal in South China Sea dated 23 February 2000The Philippines says that two of China’s most advanced fisheries protection vessels have been deployed in disputed waters of the South China Sea off the Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island to China (shown right). They are among five Chinese government ships–three from Fisheries Enforcement and two Coast Guard–16 fishing boats and 56 utility boats Manila says are plying waters that saw a stand-off between the two countries’ coast guard vessels last month and sparked a continuing diplomatic row. Beijing says that only 20 fishing boats are in the area, a typical number for this time of year.

The two countries had announced separate seasonal fishing bans in an effort to diffuse the dispute. Beijing says the Chinese vessels are observing its. Manila says they are harvesting clams and coral, in contravention of its ban, and has demanded they withdraw. The satellite image above shows the entrance to the lagoon bottom right; the outline is marked by the coral reef. On Tuesday, the foreign ministry said that what it called the Philippines’ provocations had necessitated “China to adopt corresponding measures to strengthen management and control.” It also took a dig, if not in name, at the U.S. for selling the Philippines a Hamilton class naval cutter. None of this sounds like an easing of tensions.


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The Shipping News

Much has happened this week since Beijing and Manila announced mutual temporary fishing bans that lower the tension in their dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea that came to a head with a stand-off near the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China). In summary:

  • Vietnam has repeated its rejection of China’s imposition of the above mentioned seasonal fishing ban in the South China Sea.
  • Beijing and Tokyo are holding a first round of talks on their maritime dispute in the East China Sea.
  • China is putting 4,000 islands to which it lays claim under real-time 3-D ariel surveillance, including 45 islands described as being “along baseline points of China’s territorial waters”.
  • Filipino oil company, Philex Petroleum, says it is seeking rigs to drill for natural gas near the Reed Bank off Palawan, waters disputed with China. China’s CNOOC might supply them.
  • North Korea has seized three Chinese trawlers in the Yellow Sea, apparently for ransom.

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Stilling Rough Waters In The South China Sea

Vessels anchor in Batou Township of Denghai District in Shantou, south China's Guangdong Province, May 15, 2012. China will soon impose a routine fishing ban in northern parts of the South China Sea, authorities announced Monday. The fishing ban will last from May 16 to August 1, covering areas north of the 12th parallel of north latitude, including Huangyan Island but excluding most of the Nansha Islands, according to a spokesman from the South China Fishery Administration Bureau of the Ministry of Agriculture. (Xinhua/Yao Jun)China and the Philippines have said they will impose simultaneous temporary fishing bans in parts of the South China Sea. It is a way to diffuse their maritime stand-off near the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China). While neither side recognizes the legitimacy of the other’s fishing ban in the waters they claim as its own, the arrangement allows both sides to withdraw their coast guard cutters on the grounds that there is no fisheries protection to be done.

Both sides say the fishing bans are for fisheries management reasons and have no connection to the naval stand-off that started more than a month back when a Philippines warship tried to detain a dozen Chinese fishing vessels operating in the disputed waters. While it is true that China has instituted a summer fishing ban every year since 1999–this year’s was first announced in January–the arrangement indicates that neither Beijing nor Manila want the increasingly tense dispute to get out of hand.

Maritime claims in the South China Sea, 5 June 2011, Voice of AmericaThat is not to say that it will go away, or that the various parts of the Chinese government won’t stop blowing hot or cold on the issue. For the past three years Vietnamese fishermen have defied the ban, which also covers the fishing grounds near the Spratly Islands over which both China and Vietnam claim sovereignty. That prompted Chinese coast guards to detain the Vietnamese boats. China has again said it will impound the vessels and tackle of violators throughout the waters where it has suspended fishing. That provides China’s coast guard with an excuse to continue its patrols through waters variously claimed by not just by itself, Vietnam and the Philippines but also Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Updates: Vietnam has rejected China’s imposition of a seasonal fishing ban in the South China Sea. Beijing and Tokyo are holding a first round of talks on their maritime dispute in the East China Sea. China is putting 4,000 islands to which it lays claim under real-time 3-D ariel surveillance, including 45 islands described as being “along baseline points of China’s territorial waters”. Meanwhile, North Korea has seized three Chinese trawlers in the Yellow Sea, apparently for ransom.


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Beijing Eases Tensions in South China Sea Stand-off

China's view of the South China Sea.

China has pulled back two of its three coast guard ships involved in the two-week long stand-off with the Philippines off the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China) in disputed waters of the South China Sea.  State media, quoting a Chinese embassy spokesman in Manila,  says the two withdrawn vessels include the Yuzheng-310, China’s most advanced fisheries patrol ship and which had arrived in the area late last week as a show of force.

The increasingly prickly incident started on April 10 after a Filippino Navy cutter attempted to detain a dozen Chinese trawlers for alleged illegal fishing. The de-escalation comes despite little progress being made on the diplomatic front.

Update: China continues to reiterate its historical claim to the shoal, whose location is shown on the map, above, with the Philippines conspicuous by its absence. On Monday, Beijing denounced Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario’s call for other countries to take a stand against China’s maritime territorial claims. On Tuesday, it rejected his assertion that its territorial claims may threaten freedom of navigation in the region.


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South China Sea Stand-Off Takes A Worrying Turn

The standoff off the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China) between China and the Philippines is taking a different direction to other recent territorial maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas. Previously a confrontational incident, usually involving coast guards and Chinese fishing boats, has been followed by a diplomatic defusing. This time, there has been a second phase of confrontation at sea.

The incident started a week ago when a Filippino naval cutter detained a dozen Chinese fishing vessels for fishing in disputed waters. A vessel from China Marine Surveillance (CMS), the paramilitary maritime law enforcement agency, effectively a coast guard, went to the fishermen’s aid, then a second. Manila swapped its warship for a coast guard vessel. The trawlers were allowed to leave in two batches. One coast guard vessel stayed to face off its Filippino counterpart. But then a second arrived, and on Sunday there was reportedly overflights by Chinese planes.

All these incidents in disputed waters are tests of the other claimants’ will to defend their claims to the disputed waters–and the riches that lie below. They are mostly driven by the more nationalist and military sections of government. The danger is that one will spin out of control. As we suggested earlier, this latest incident is not just a test of Manila but also of Washington’s willingness to back its regional allies. The Philippines and the U.S. are now undertaking joint naval exercises in the area, though these were planned before the stand-off started, and are not happening in disputed waters). For its part, CMS now says it will step up its patrols in the South China Sea. (The BBC has this map of who claims what and where the claims overlap.)

Without a region-wide settlement of the question, something that ASEAN has been trying to broker without success, these incidents at sea will continue, as will the risk of one of them escalating. The more the uniformed services take matters into their own hands, the greater that risk becomes.

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China and Philippines in South China Sea Stand-Off

The 2010 collision between a Chinese trawler and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in disputed waters in the East China Sea triggered a nasty international spat and brought relations between Tokyo and Beijing to a testy and very public low. An incident involving another dozen Chinese fishing boats, this one in waters of the South China Sea disputed with the Philippines, could turn uglier yet. Warships have become involved in a maritime stand-off near the Scarborough Shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island.

Manila claims its vessel, one of three cutters recently acquired from the U.S., discovered the Chinese boats fishing illegally on April 8. Chinese surveillance ships, technically from the coast guard, not Navy, arrived on the 10th to prevent the Filipino warship capturing the trawlers. Manila subsequently replaced its warship with a coast guard vessel. (Update: A third Chinese surveillance ship has arrived.) Beijing claims the fishing boats were seeking shelter and harassed by the warship. It has also subsequently reiterated its claim to sovereignty over the waters.

The dispute over who owns which part of the East and South China Seas, and the rich resources beneath, is a long-running one. It was a prominent topic at the recent ASEAN summit, but not one that moved anywhere closer to resolution. The latest incident with the Philippines follows China’s detention of 21 Vietnamese fishermen in March while working off the Paracel Islands (Xisha to the Chinese and Hoang Sa to the Vietnamese). Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims of sovereignty over often overlapping parts of the South China Sea. China’s claim is the largest, though, covering a big U-shape over most of the sea’s 1.7 million square kilometers, straddling shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East and below which are believed to be rich oil, gas and mineral deposits.

A year ago, there was tension between China and the Philippines after two Chinese patrol vessels harassed a survey vessel conducting oil exploration in the Reed Bank, about 150 kilometers east of the Spratly Islands. This was seen at the time as another attempt by Beijing to test Manila’s commitment to pursuing its territorial claims. This latest incident looks like a re-run, and a possible test of Washington’s willingness to back its Southeast Asian allies in this dispute, especially since the Obama administration’s announcement of its Asia pivot in foreign policy.

Beijing and Manila both have other issues on their mind at present, including a common concern about North Korea’s imminent launch of a rocket, which is projected to fall to earth near the Philippines’ main island, Luzon. The controversial launch has, though, led to the deployment of U.S. and Japanese naval forces in the East China Sea, which Beijing considers its back yard. This may make it even more prickly in asserting its maritime territorial claims.


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