On March 20, Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana officially informed the Philippine nation about the presence of around 220 Chinese fishing vessels moored in line at Whitsun Reef (called Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines). The reef is a wide boomerang-shaped shallow coral reef at the northeast end of Union Banks, located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan. According to Lorenzana, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) sighted and reported the presence of these vessels, allegedly manned by the Chinese maritime militia, as early as March 7. The PCG reported its sighting to an interagency body, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS).

Satellite imagery published by Simularity, a United States-based imagery analysis company, shows that this large grouping of Chinese fishing vessels had been at the reef since December 2020, though others, including Radio Free Asia and AMTI had documented the presence of Chinese vessels at Whitsun as early as February 2020.  Based on these satellite images, the vessels are not doing any fishing, nor have they moved significantly over time—they have just remained anchored and tied together at the reef. It was noted that although the number of ships in the reef varied on a day-to-day basis from December through March, the average number of ships remained the same. The ships’ behavior displays China’s application of a strategy whereby it effectively lays claim to submerged land features through swarming the disputed waters with a huge flotilla of vessels that defy other countries’ diplomatic or law enforcement efforts to expel them.

After announcing the Chinese flotilla’s presence, Secretary Lorenzana issued a statement saying that the Philippines was ready to defend its national sovereignty and protect the country’s marine resources.” The following day, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin filed a diplomatic protest with the Chinese Embassy in Manila. The immediate and animated reaction of the Department of National Defense (DND) and Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to the presence of Chinese maritime militia in Whitsun Reef  reflects the Philippine government’s recognition of an ongoing Chinese gray zone operation.  This was what transpired during the three-month Scarborough Shoal stand-off between Philippine and Chinese civilian vessels in 2012.

Duterte Rejects the United States’ Offer of Assistance

On April 9, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Secretary Locsin to express Washington’s concern over the massing of Chinese maritime militia vessels in the South China Sea, and more importantly, to reaffirm the applicability of the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) in the South China Sea.  Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called Secretary Lorenza to express U.S. support to its ally and informed his Philippine counterpart that the USS Theodore Roosevelt and its escorts were operating in the South China Sea.

Afterward, the NTF-WPS issued a statement that the Philippines appreciates the declarations of support from its international partners who share a common adherence to a rules-based international order consistent with international law. The DFA also released a statement emphasizing that the MDT has “stood strong for nearly 70 years, in the light of the recent geopolitical developments and challenges in the Asia Pacific region, particularly in the West Philippine Sea.” The DND even raised the prospect of seeking assistance from the United States when a department spokesperson announced: “As the situation in the West Philippines Sea evolves, we keep all our option open in managing the situation, including leveraging our partnerships with other nations such as the United States?”

President Duterte, however, quickly rejected the idea of seeking U.S. assistance. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque made a scathing rebuke to the United States, expressing doubt over whether the Philippines could count on its ally in case of a full-blown conflict in the South China Sea. The statement came just after Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez disclosed that the United States was just a call away if the Philippines needed assistance from its ally. President Duterte then appeared on television venting his resentment toward the United States, declaring that the Philippines should no longer count on its oldest ally to help in the face of its lingering territorial row with China. He maintained that he would not go to war over the South China Sea dispute, insisting that he considered China a “good friend.” At the same time, he reminded Filipinos that the United States did not send ships and tell China to leave the area when the Philippines was asserting its ownership over Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

President Duterte’s rejection of U.S. assistance during the Whitsun Reef stand-off signifies his refusal to accept the failure of his appeasement policy on China. His unrelenting moves to distance the Philippines from the United States and gravitate toward China have failed to moderate the latter’s aggressive postures in the South China Sea or generate investment in the country’s infrastructure development under the Belt and Road Initiative. He is oblivious to the reality that China does not differentiate between its friends and rivals when it comes to its territorial disputes. Duterte is hopelessly clinging to his delusion that China will eventually accept the merit of the Philippines’ claim in the South China Sea and that it will be fair in settling its territorial rows with other littoral states in the South China Sea. It will not take long for him to find out that China will do whatever it takes to accomplish its goal of controlling 85 to 90 percent of the South China Sea at the expense of the littoral Southeast Asian states.

About Renato Cruz de Castro

Renato Cruz De Castro is a distinguished university professor in the International Studies Department, De La Salle University, Manila, and holds the Dr. Aurelio Calderon Chair in Philippines-American Relation. As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Albert Del Rosario Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ADRI), he writes monthly opinion columns for the Philippine Star and Business World.