November 26, 2021
MANILA, Philippines — An international maritime law expert sees China exploiting next year’s leadership change in the Philippines to further assert its claims to the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
University of the Philippines (UP) law professor Jay Batongbacal on Thursday said that the country’s rights and entitlements in the West Philippine Sea under international law may not survive another six years of “official neglect and lack of adequate protection” and a continuation of President Duterte’s “policy of appeasement” toward Beijing.
“We cannot elect a president and vice president who will again take the defeatist stance against our increasingly assertive neighbor,” Batongbacal said. “Next year, 2022, we’re actually likely to see China become even more assertive and insistent on its excessive claims.”
‘Gray zone’ tactic
Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, spoke at the Pilipinas Conference 2021 on multilateralism, foreign policy and security outlook for 2022.
He cited last week’s Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal incident as a “very, very clear indication that China intends to continue using gray zone operations to squeeze us out of the WPS and the Kalayaan island group.”
He said the “gray zone” tactic being employed by China was meant to acquire control and dominance over large areas of the sea while avoiding conditions that would enable the Philippines to take measures for its defense.
China was also using the “cabbage strategy” to insert layers upon layers of Chinese vessels to surround Philippine outposts and features, constricting Filipino activities in these waters.
Tensions flare up
The Chinese also are ramping up civilian activities by deploying their coast guard, marine research vessels, resource exploitation and oil exploration.
“Elections create an opportunity that could be exploited at a time when government and its responses will be slow and uncertain. Tensions in the South China sea tend to flare up during the summer months before the typhoon season which coincides with election season,” he pointed out.
“Last week’s incident at Ayungin Shoal demonstrated that China will not lose an opportunity to change the status quo in its favor by cutting off resupply lines to the Sierra Madre,” he said, referring to the ship being used as a Philippine military outpost at the shoal.
Moves on Panatag
In 2016, also an election year, China mobilized for the reclamation of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal to convert it into another artificial island.
Batongbacal said the two shoals “represent potential crisis points that can be instigated to occur during that time of power transition and we must be prepared for it.”
Security forces should be extra vigilant in these areas and should closely coordinate with the country’s allies to fill in the gaps in our maritime domain awareness so immediate action could be taken, he said.
This is meant “to prevent an induced crisis that could result in either the loss of our presence in Second Thomas Shoal or the potential conversion of Scarborough Shoal into an artificial island.”
“If either happens, that will represent another major setback and a major loss for us,” Batongbacal said.