Whitstun Reef, named Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines after the late composer of the Philippine national anthem, is becoming a new flashpoint in the South China Sea. The massing of about 220 Chinese fishing vessels in the reef in the past several weeks raises worries about China’s growing activities in the contested sea.

The inter-agency National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea cited concerns about overfishing, marine environment destruction, and hazards to safety of navigation.

Whether or not those vessels form part of a state-backed maritime militia, their sheer number have already rung alarm bells in Manila. If they are not engaged in fishing or taking refuge, as the weather is anything but inclement, their presence is all the more disturbing. It may be prelude to a near constant stationing which can bolster Beijing’s claim of administrative jurisdiction over the reef.

Speculation that the deployment may herald possible occupation reminds Manila of Mischief (Panganiban) Reef, where China began building what was claimed as fishermen shelters in 1994 only to graduate to a fortified base years later. Fears about the heavy Chinese presence transcending to gradual exclusionary control of the feature also draw striking parallels to what befell Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal in 2012. The shoal, which had been the subject of a months-long tense bilateral standoff, eventually slipped out of Manila’s hands after a U.S.-brokered agreement failed to produce a simultaneous withdrawal and a return to status quo ante.

Whitsun Reef is situated in Union (Pagkakaisa) Banks, a submerged atoll in the Spratlys. Unlike China and Vietnam, the Philippines does not have any occupied features in the area, but it is well within the country’s exclusive economic zone and has been a traditional Filipino fishing ground for generations. Beijing has two and Hanoi has four bases in Union Banks, making the presence of Chinese ships in the vicinity of the reef in contention not at all surprising. But their congregation on a particular geographic feature is reminiscent of the swarming of Chinese vessels at Thitu (Pag-Asa) island, Manila’s largest occupied feature in the disputed sea.

In response to the latest incident at Whitsun, Manila lodged a diplomatic protest and sought the immediate withdrawal of the Chinese vessels. The matter was brought to the attention of the Chinese defense attache in Manila. President Rodrigo Duterte also spoke with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian on the issue. The number of Chinese ships had since decreased but 44 still remain as of last weekend. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana issue sharp statements demanding they swiftly leave the area.

Manila can refer the Whitsun reef incident to the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) established in 2016 to manage the maritime row. The last consultative meeting was held in October 2019 in Beijing, but the pandemic made high level in-person diplomacy difficult last year. There is no stopping Manila from convening an urgent virtual sixth round to impress that it is not taking the matter lightly. Otherwise, allowing tensions to fester may sour ties ahead of Philippine presidential elections next year where relations with China and maritime disputes are expected to loom large in the security and foreign policy debates.

The Philippines can leverage the growing chorus of international support for its position, notably its 2016 landmark arbitration victory, which Duterte reportedly cited in his meeting with Ambassador Huang. Ambassadors to the Philippines from the United States, Japan, Australia, the European Union, Canada, and New Zealand also expressed concerns over recent developments in the South China Sea with a direct if not implied reference to Whitsun reef. Manila can also consult and work with fellow ASEAN neighbor and co-claimant Vietnam, which has likewise voiced opposition to the overwhelming presence of Chinese ships in the disputed reef.

Beyond diplomacy, the Philippines has vowed to enhance patrols in the area. But fielding naval ships to perform maritime law enforcement functions may also provoke a crisis. This is precisely what happened at Scarborough Shoal in 2012 when Manila dispatched its largest gray hull to interdict Chinese fishermen engaged in destructive and unsustainable fishing. Beijing pounced on it as Manila militarizing the issue and sent additional ships to prevent the apprehension. That triggered a two-month-long standoff that led Manila to file its arbitration case against Beijing the next year. This precedent puts the onus on the modernizing Philippine Coast Guard to be on the frontline in guarding the country’s vast maritime domain.

As was the case with similar incidents like the Chinese foray in Malaysian waters last year and the Sino-Vietnamese standoff over Vanguard Bank in 2019, the swarm of Chinese vessels in Whitsun Reef has yet to elicit a response from ASEAN. More than the domestic focus in grappling with the pandemic and fueling economic recovery, the desire to step up and play a role in defusing the political crisis in Myanmar is already taking up much of the bloc’s energies. This said, Southeast Asian countries, notably littoral states like Indonesia, are probably watching how the next developments will unfold before weighing in. This year’s rotating ASEAN chair, Brunei, is also a South China Sea claimant and will be compelled to take up the matter if a resolution does not come.

Last week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin flew to Nanping in the southern Chinese coastal province of Fujian, alongside fellow ASEAN counterparts from Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, to meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi. While Myanmar was likely the centerpiece agenda, Locsin may not have let the opportunity to raise the issue of Whitsun Reef pass. Should the Chinese ships completely disperse following the meeting, Manila may cite it as a triumph of diplomacy. But even such a retreat would likely be more tactical than lasting. China’s growing omnipresence in the disputed sea is a reality with far reaching implications to the sustainability of the sea’s marine resources, regional stability, and established maritime rules of the road.

Indeed, the South China Sea remains a stubborn irritant in bilateral relations despite improved ties in recent years under Duterte’s watch. Despite trade and investment dividends and Beijing’s vaccine donations, pressure is mounting on his government to assert the 2016 arbitral victory and be more determined in pushing back against Chinese advances. Diplomacy may help temporarily defuse tensions arising from a particular incident, but growing frustration over recurring incidents may dissipate energies for future talks.

About Lucio Blanco Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation and a member of the Board of Directors of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies. He was a lecturer at the Chinese Studies Program of Ateneo de Manila University and the International Studies Department of De La Salle University (Manila). He obtained his Master of Laws from Peking University and is presently pursuing his MA International Affairs at American University in Washington D.C.