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Duterte’s ‘red lines’ in the West Philippine Sea

In a remarkable twist of events, the Rodrigo Duterte administration has, for the first time, sought to draw the line in the sands of the West Philippine Sea. This is a welcome development, though action speaks louder than words.

After months of defeatist statements — with the President falsely claiming that the choices we face are either a suicidal war or acquiescence, yet ignoring a whole spectrum of other options on the table — there are signs that the current government is hardening its position vis-à-vis China’s relentless weaponization of disputed land features in the area.

After all, the President’s conciliatory diplomacy has yet to tame the maritime and territorial appetite of China. If anything, it may have instead emboldened the Asian powerhouse. In recent months, we have seen accelerated Chinese militarization, much to the detriment of smaller claimant states such as the Philippines.

This month, China deployed H-6k nuclear-capable bombers to the Woody Island in the South China Sea. They participated in exercises, which, according to the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), were part of a “takeoff and landing training on islands and reefs in the South China Sea in order to improve our ability to ‘reach all [Chinese] territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions.'"

The Woody Island in the Paracels is claimed by Vietnam, but not the Philippines. Yet, the bombers have a range of more than 1,000 nautical miles, placing much of our country within their range. Crucially, it’s highly likely that China will soon deploy strategic bombers to the Spratly (Kalayaan) group of islands, where the Philippines occupies around 10 land features.

After all, China has constructed large airstrips and military facilities in the Philippine-claimed Mischief, Subi, and Fiery Cross reefs, which can now host all kinds of military planes, including large cargoes. Weeks earlier, China deployed HQ-9Bsurface-to-air-missiles (SAMs) YJ-12B as well as anti-cruise ballistic missiles (ACBMs) to the area.

A month earlier, it installed radar and electronic jamming equipment in the Spratlys. None of these developments are purely "defensive," but instead reflect China’s intention to maintain and extend its huge military superiority over other claimant states.

Over the past year, China has also accelerated its reclamation activities to augment its artificially created islands. In 2017 alone, the Asian powerhouse reclaimed an additional 290,000 square meters in in the Spratlys.

It’s just a matter of time before China imposes an exclusion zone across the South China Sea, covering large parts of the West Philippine Sea (our Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf). In fact, just the threat or partial implementation of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) will pose direct threat to our supply lines in the area. Our troops and personnel in the Spratlys rely on supply of water, food, and other basic necessities from outside the area.

And as if these weren’t enough, China has also reportedly stepped up its presence in the Benham Rise, which lies on the eastern side of Philippine shores. According to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, China may have deployed and stationed — instead of just exercising ‘right of innocent passage” per international law — warships and submarines in the area without our permission.

We also got to know that China has unilaterally renamed five undersea features within the Philippine Rise (formerly Benham Rise) without our permission. And they have repeatedly sought to conduct Marine Scientific Research (MSR) in the area, but for years refused to welcome our scientists on board during their trips.

The concatenation of these troubling developments in the West Philippine Sea has naturally provoked the ire of the Filipino people as well as our brave soldiers, who have expressed their willingness to fight for our rights in the West Philippine Sea and protect our territorial integrity based on their “constitutional duty."

The Duterte administration has repeatedly downplayed the necessity and utility of filing diplomatic protests against Chinese weaponization of disputed land features in the area. The President, who quipped about the Philippines becoming a Chinese province earlier this year, has also suggested that it’s better for smaller countries to be “meek” in order to garner Beijing’s “mercy.”

But at least, the government has now come up with a series of “red lines,” the crossing of which by China could torpedo our increasingly warm bilateral relations. According to Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, the first red line is any Chinese reclamation activity on the Scarborough (Panatag) shoal. The second one is harassment and coercive expulsion of our marine detachment in the Second Thomas (Ayungin) shoal.

In both cases, assistance from our allies like America have been instrumental to the protection of our interests so far, namely preventing China from complete domination of both shoals. The final red line is any unilateral drilling of oil and gas resources within our exclusive economic zone.

In fairness, Duterte made a similar pronouncement back in December 2016, when he warned Beijing that he will raise the Philippines’ arbitration award if and “when the minerals are already being siphoned out” by China.

The President has already called for joint-development or joint-exploration of hydrocarbon resources in the area. We are yet to know the details of such plan though. Crucially, Secretary Cayetano suggested that the President is willing to go to war if China crossed these red lines.

The foreign secretary has even promised to resign from office if the country lost any additional piece of territory in the West Philippine Sea to China. “[I]f we lost a single island during Duterte’s time, I will pack my bags, go home,” Cayetano said.

These are tough and timely words from the Duterte administration. Obviously, no one, including China, wants war. After all, any Sino-Philippine war in the West Philippine Sea will be a diplomatic disaster for China. It will push all other smaller claimant states’ into America’s embrace. China will be seen as a new regional bully and a threat to the whole region, providing the West, Japan, and India a perfect excuse to augment their military footprint in the area.

A war with the Philippines would also endanger China’s own trade linkages, much of which passes through the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait. Above all, China will ruin its hard-earned soft power and authority in the region if it engages in war with a smaller and weaker state like the Philippines.

Thus, the issue here was never about choosing between war and submission to China. That’s a false binary. No one wants war, but no one in the Philippines should sue for submission too.

Instead, we should be prepared to stand for our rights and make necessary sacrifices if push comes to shove. The West Philippine Sea is most of all a test of wills, a psychological warfare that benefits the daring against the weak-minded. Let’s not be the latter. — GMA News