Last week, a Philippine lawmaker, Congressman Gary Alejano, released images showing Chinese coast guard, naval, and civilian vessels within a stone’s throw of Pag-asa, or Thitu, Island — a significant Philippine possession in the disputed Spratly group. Pag-asa, which is administered as part of Kalayaan municipality, an archipelagic cluster in the South China Sea, is also claimed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
Shortly after their release, Alejano’s allegations regarding the presence of Chinese vessels were independently verified by Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI). AMTI’s perusal of satellite imagery acquired on August 13 showed multiple Chinese vessels in the area, including “nine Chinese fishing ships and two naval/law enforcement vessels.” A Philippine fishing boat was also docked at a nearby unoccupied sandbar.
The incident remains highly murky, with neither Chinese authorities nor the Philippine government having officially commented on the claims levied by Alejano. Philippine Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio described the events underway near Pag-asa as an “invasion of Philippine territory” on Saturday, calling on Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano and President Rodrigo Duterte to step in.
One of the features under question in the area is the unoccupied Sandy Cay. Carpio noted that Sandy Cay, an unoccupied sand bar, “is a Philippine land territory that is being seized (to put it mildly), or being invaded (to put it frankly), by China.” (Sandy Cay should not be conflated with the Vietnam-occupied Sand Cay, another feature in the Spratly group.)
Aside from the relatively short list of facts concerning current events — that there are Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island and both the Philippine and Chinese governments are rather silent about the whole affair — there is little else to be said conclusively at this point. Regardless, whatever is happening appears to be a potentially significant change to the status quo in the South China Sea in 2017 — a year that has been deceptively placid in these waters, as my colleague Prashanth Parameswaran has warned in these pages.
The context of the ongoing Chinese naval and coast guard activity is crucial. First, the Philippines, along with nine other Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states, has just concluded a draft framework on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.
Second, it has been less than a year since Duterte visited Beijing, concluding a range of agreements and broadly lowering the geopolitical tensions between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea — tensions that appeared to have reached their apotheosis last year as a Hague-based arbitral tribunal ruled almost completely in the Philippines’ favor in a major case concerning maritime entitlements and other issues in the Spratly group.
Beyond the context and the facts, however, analysts are left mostly to speculate about possible Chinese intentions and the factors governing the Philippine government’s remarkable silence about an unusually broad Chinese presence near Pag-asa.
The significance of Sandy Cay itself is perhaps an overlooked component of the entire affair. While the feature may seem underwhelming as an unoccupied sand bar in the middle of the crowded Spratly group, it does have an important legal role to play. As I’d discussed back in 2015 and as Euan Graham has recently noted at the Lowy Interpreter, Sandy Cay is within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef — a name that may ring bells for South China Sea observers as it is the site of one of China’s seven artificial islands.
Seizing Sandy Cay — if that is China’s intent — would be the most provocative Chinese action in the Spratly group at a Philippine-claimed feature since the 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal. In last year’s ruling, the tribunal found that “As Subi Reef lies within 12 nautical miles of the reef on which Sandy Cay is located, it could serve as a basepoint for the territorial sea of Sandy Cay.”
While China ignored the tribunal and claimed it was invalid, it may nevertheless see the legal value in establishing control over Sandy Cay. The tribunal, as wide-ranging as it was on matters concerning the status of features and maritime entitlements in the Spratly group, did not have the jurisdiction to rule on matters of territorial sovereignty. In the end, China’s gambit at Sandy Cay may amount to little more than the latest iteration of its attempts at lawfare.
Of course, Chinese intentions could be more mundane. Beijing may be seeking to “test the waters” of its normalized relationship with the Philippines under Duterte, seeking to test reaction thresholds for the government amid intensifying public opposition. Despite Duterte’s continued popularity, Chinese attempts to restrict Philippine fishermen from access waters claimed by Manila are a sore spot for public opinion and could end up feeding back at the Malacañang Palace in the end.
All this brings us to the question of the Duterte government’s silence on the matter — silence that was broken on Monday. Despite Justice Carpio’s exhortations, Duterte has rejected the idea that the Chinese activity represents an “invasion.”
“Why should I defend a sandbar and kill the Filipinos because of a sandbar?” he added.
Instead, Duterte has said that the Chinese are there to “patrol” since “we are friends.”
“China assured me that they will not build anything there. I called the Ambassador, I said, when I read – (They said) ‘We will assure you that we are not building anywhere there,'” the Philippine president added. The assurances were reportedly delivered by Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua and the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Duterte’s remarks on Monday raise more questions than they answer. If there was an existing understanding, why did neither the foreign secretary nor the minister of defense issue clarifications early last week? Second, did Duterte order Philippine Navy vessels to stand down from the area and allow the Chinese Coast Guard and People’s Liberation Army-Navy access to the waters near Pag-asa and Thitu Island? Finally, how does the president explain reports of Philippine fishing vessels being denied access to the waters if these are indeed friendly patrols?
Given the legal stakes involving Sandy Cay highlighted above, the Duterte government’s nonchalance about ongoing Chinese activities at Pag-asa remains unconvincing. Perhaps the Philippine government will soon offer a more compelling rationale for the ongoing activities, before it’s too late.