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The ghost of the 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off

Once again, the enigmatic and massive presence of Chinese fishing vessels that are believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia are in the Philippine Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ), particularly in the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef), in another swarming maneuver that is part of China’s aggressive expansionism in the West Philippine Sea. Belligerently banking on their debunked nine-line claim, China not only continues to negate and evade the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Arbitrary Ruling of 2016, but also deprives the littoral states of their maritime and sovereign rights.

On March 20, Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana informed the Filipino nation that an estimated 220 Chinese fishing vessels were suspiciously moored in Julian Felipe Reef, a boomerang-shaped feature that emerges above the water only during low tides, that is located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.

The National Task Force for the West Philippines Sea warned of overfishing and destruction of the maritime environment. Closer observation revealed that the Chinese vessels were not engaged in fishing as they were closely lashed together in row formation and kept full white lights on during the night. Their claim to be “seeking shelter from storms” during the hot summer season raised more suspicions. Increased sovereignty patrols were immediately sent by the Defense Secretary as this incursion is within the Philippines 200 nautical mile EEZ.

The Philippine government’s animated reaction to this incident reflects its recognition of Chinese gray zone operation. It has taken note that China has incrementally asserted its expansive claim in the South China Sea by building artificial islands and fortifying them with missiles, ports, and airstrips in disputed waters also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. This was made possible because it has been swarming the South China Sea with both public and civilian vessels, effectively defying and overwhelming the littoral states’ efforts to drive them away. The objective is to accomplish by overwhelming presence what it had been unable to do through diplomacy or economic statecraft, or naked naval power. This is what transpired during the 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off against the Philippines.

The stand-off began on April 10, 2012 when the Philippine Navy’s (PN) flagship, the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, tried to arrest more than 10 Chinese fishing vessels that were spotted in Scarborough Shoal, which is only 220 kilometers from the main Philippine island of Luzon and well within the country’s EEZ. However, before the Gregorio Del Pilar could apprehend the fishing vessels, two Chinese marine surveillance vessels arrived and prevented the arrest of the Chinese fishermen. The two Chinese civilian ships then boldly informed the Filipino captain that his ship had strayed into Chinese territorial waters and was ordered to leave immediately. The following day, President Benigno Aquino recalled the navy ship and replaced it with a smaller Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) patrol craft in an effort to diffuse the tension. Instead of reciprocating Manila’s gesture, Beijing deployed its most advanced and latest fishery patrol ship to the shoal and this joined the two other civilian vessels confronting the PCG patrol craft.

At the onset of the stand-off, China had gained the upper hand when it forced the PN’s surface combatant to withdraw from the shoal. With an armada of armed civilian vessels at its disposal, China put the onus of either escalating or de-escalating the impasse squarely on the Philippines.

China then sent additional patrol ships, and consequently, three huge and imposing Chinese civilian vessels confronted a lone PCG patrol craft in the shoal. In early May, the Chinese foreign ministry ordered the Philippines to withdraw its lone PCG patrol craft from the shoal as China deployed another civilian vessel and additional fishing boats. To forcefully evict the Philippines from the shoal, China impounded 1,200 containers of tropical fruits from the Philippines in several Chinese ports and cancelled all Chinese group tours to the Philippines. To add more pressure on the Philippines, hawkish elements in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) floated the idea of using force against the Philippines.

In mid-June 2012, the tension at the shoal eased as the two countries withdrew their civilian vessels on the pretext of the onset of the typhoon season. However, after the Philippines withdrew its lone coast guard vessel from the shoal, Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels, along with China Law Enforcement Command constructed a chain barrier across the mouth of the shoal to prevent Philippine access to it. This led to China’s exercise of de facto occupation of the shoal.

The 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off has taught the current administration that to avoid open conflict, China pursues its objective of maritime expansion entirely in the grey zone where it uses military and civilian intimidation and the non-violent but coercive use of maritime power.

As Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stated clearly and sternly, the presence of these alleged Chinese militia boats is a “clear provocative action of militarizing the area.” This military strategy of China disempowers the littoral states and physically bars them from exerting their maritime and territorial rights in the disputed waters.

The Duterte administration should have by now recognized the hard lesson in this ongoing Julian Felipe stand-off. These gray zone operations enabled China to contest and dominate competitive spaces and thereby achieve its coercive aim of maritime expansion without resorting to warlike violence against both its friends and competitors alike!


Dr. Renato De Castro is a Trustee and Convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the Stratbase ADR Institute.

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