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Pushing back

Maritime and security experts warn that China has put the Philippines in a bind by sending a swarm of its maritime militia vessels to a reef in the West Philippine Sea.

Manila’s lack of action could play into the hands of Beijing if it continues to take no action against the incursion, or be portrayed as escalating tensions between the two countries if it finally does.

The massive deployment of over 200 Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef last month could also close the gap between two of China’s artificial islands within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and pressure the Philippines to choose to ally itself with China or the United States.

Collin Koh, research fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Beijing would basically get a victory if there is no response from its victim. On the other hand, if China’s victim does act, they can blame it for escalating tensions.

Manila has filed a formal diplomatic protest against the presence of the Chinese vessels and demanding their withdrawal. The Department of Foreign Affairs summoned China’s ambassador, Huang Xilian, to express “displeasure over the illegal lingering presence” and reiterated the firm demand of the Philippines that China ensure the immediate departure of all its vessels from the area of Julian Felipe Reef and other maritime zones of the Philippines.

Koh pointed out that what is happening might potentially be a repeat of what happened in Mischief Reef in the 1990s where China built structures on stilts, supposedly as shelter for fishermen in 1994-1995.

With China becoming the region’s biggest bully, the Philippine government has to rethink its current alliances and allegiances that has resulted in China aggressively pushing its claims in the West Philippine Sea with impunity.

We can still push back using available resources and alliances but the window for taking action is closing rapidly and the longer our government does nothing, the more our nation stands to lose.*

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