The Philippines’ navy chief has accused China of trying to provoke his forces into firing the first shot in a confrontation in its sovereign waters, just months after a People’s Liberation Navy ship trained its radar guns on one of its corvettes.
Vice-Admiral Giovanni Bacordo on Monday also called for Manila to protest against the week-long presence of two Chinese survey ships in the resource-rich Reed Bank, just 85 nautical miles off the coast of Palawan.
The area is well within The Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone but is also claimed by China under its disputed nine dash line map that asserts historical rights over some 90 per cent of the South China Sea.
- Brent Read
“We have reported this already … and request the filing of a diplomatic protest,” Admiral Bacordo told the Foreign Correspondents Association of The Philippines, adding that the speed of the vessels indicated they were undertaking surveying work.
The veteran defence official, appointed head of The Philippines Navy in February, said he was concerned about the potential for conflict in areas of the South China Sea that fall within The Philippines’ EEZ but which China claims as its own.
Admiral Bacordo said Chinese navy, coastguard and fishing vessels continued to “loiter” inside The Philippines’ EEZ and appeared at times to be goading their counterparts into aggression.
Referring to the February incident where a PLA navy ship trained its radar guns on a Philippines corvette, the navy chief said: “The way I analyse it, in our dispute in that area, the first one to fire the shot becomes the loser. So they will do everything for us to take aggressive action.
“I’m sure they want us to take the first shot but we will not. Any navy who fires the first shot in that area will lose international support. That includes all the navies patrolling in that area.”
The comments, a week after President Rodrigo Duterte banned navy forces from participating in joint maritime exercises with the US in the South China Sea, highlight an escalating internal struggle within the Manila administration over how far the country should lean towards China at the expense of its own national interests.
China’s rising, and seemingly opportunistic, territorial aggression across the region during the pandemic — against Australia, Southeast Asian nations, Taiwan, Hong Kong and India — has provoked growing resistance.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said Admiral Bacordo’s concerns were widely shared within the defence establishment, given China’s history of provoking conflict in order to seize territory.
The presence of Chinese survey ships at Reed Bank — where Beijing has tried and failed to force Manila into a joint development agreement for a new natural gas field — was more evidence of Beijing’s “talk and take strategy; while you’re talking, they’re taking”.
“The way China works is that it will carry out these grey zone tactics — all measures short of war — and really push it to the limit. Then if there is any response from the other side which they can characterise as provocation, they will respond with overwhelming force,” he told The Australian.
“That’s what they did when they took Johnson South reef (in the Spratly islands chain) from the Vietnamese in the 1980s. The Vietnamese made the mistake of firing the first shot; the Chinese navy just mowed them all down.”
Similarly, he said, “The Philippines’ experience with the Scarborough Shoal — 100 nautical miles from Subic Bay — was we tried to arrest fishermen and the Chinese basically took the shoal”.
Analyst Richard Heydarian said the country’s top defence officials appear to have been emboldened by US Secretary Mike Pompeo’s backing of the 2016 ruling in the Hague that rejected China’s claims over most of the South China Sea and acknowledged The Philippines’ claim to land features within its EEZ.
“Not only has the US taken a more aggressive position on China, but it has been more explicit on the precise extent of its alliance commitments,” he said.
Mr Pompeo’s assertion that any attack on Philippines’ aircraft, soldiers or vessels would trigger the Mutual Defence Treaty were the “most explicit and high level commitment to its alliance since the Nixon era”, he added.