President Marcos Jr.’s vigorous reactions to China’s gray zone operations

PRESIDENT Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for a bilateral meeting in Bangkok, Thailand on Nov. 17, 2022 on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. — OFFICE OF THE PRESS SECRETARY

At the start of his term as the 17th president of the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. indicated he wanted close economic relations with China, although balanced by vibrant security ties with the US. He was aware that the most urgent issue confronting the Philippines was generating rapid economic recovery. This was because the Philippines experienced its lowest negative growth since the Second World War as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the Duterte administration’s severe lockdown, which shocked the country’s consumer-driven economy. He believed China could be the primary provider of public investment for the country’s infrastructure development.

President Marcos Jr. ordered the resumption of talks with China to revive three major railroads project under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that were mothballed during the Duterte administration. He also raised the possibility of resuming talks with China for the joint development in the South China Sea, despite his predecessor’s decision to end further negotiations with Beijing on joint development that began in 2018.

President Marcos Jr. wanted China’s assistance to jump-start the Philippine economic recovery. He rolled out the red carpet for Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi when the latter visited the Philippines as his third stop during his five-nation tour of Southeast Asia. On July 6, 2022, Mr. Yi paid a courtesy call to the new Philippine president. Before meeting China’s top diplomat, President Marcos Jr. said that the Philippines should not only be discussing the West Philippine Sea. He said the Philippines and China should do other things to normalize their bilateral relations. He added that the Philippines is offering initiatives to increase the scope of Philippine-China relations with the possible expansion of cultural, education, and even military exchanges, if necessary.

During the meeting, President Marcos Jr. said China was the Philippines’ most vital partner and that he hoped to fortify the relationship between the two countries. Minister Wang Yi answered that China was ready to work in the same direction and is confident that with the two sides working together, the Philippines and China can open up a new golden era for their bilateral relations. He posted on his Twitter that they discussed agriculture, infrastructure, and energy, and the two countries committed to maintaining their strong relationship in the coming years.

Chinese leaders knew President Marcos Jr. had a strong interest in closer economic ties with China, which could be used to prevent Manila from aligning with Washington. When President Xi Jinping met President Marcos Jr. on the side of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok, the two leaders discussed the need for extensive economic ties between the two countries. They also agreed that the maritime dispute in the South China Sea “should not define their entire bilateral relations.”

GRAY ZONE OPERATIONS AS USUALChina knows that under President Marcos Jr., the Philippines wants to recover rapidly through Chinese economic assistance. Beijing tries to maintain close economic and diplomatic ties with the Marcos administration by offering financial aid and trade concessions, but without compromising on the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. At the same time, China continues to conduct gray zone operations against the Philippines.

Japan’s National Institute of Defense Studies (NIDS) defines gray zone operations as a “strategy employed by the side changing the status quo. The objective is to undermine the adversary’s power, legitimacy, and will while not leading to armed conflict.” In the South China Sea, Chinese gray zone operations involve the crackdowns by the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) against ordinary fishing folks, and intimidation by the Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) of the littoral states’ navies and coast guards through its swarming tactics.

In November 2022, a CCG vessel seized rocket debris assumed to have come from a Chinese rocket launch detected and retrieved by the Philippine Navy (PN) near the Philippine-administered Thitu Island (Pagasa). The following month, a large CCG ship blocked and harassed a small PN ship transporting supplies to the small Philippine garrison on the BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal. Like what transpired in March 2021, the CMM tried to establish control over Whitsun Shoal when it used its swarms of militia-manned fishing boats to establish de facto control over this disputed South China Sea land feature.

In February 2023, a CCG ship directed a military-grade laser at a PCG patrol boat that was escorting a resupply mission to the PN personnel on board the BRP Sierra Madre. In its January 2023 issue, the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) observed that the CCG had increased the frequency of its patrols near Philippine-held land features such as Thitu Island and Ayungin Shoal. These activities aim to claim and safeguard Chinese maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea by demonstrating an overwhelming physical presence.

PRESIDENT MARCOS’ VIGOROUS REACTIONSPresident Marcos Jr. declared: “This country will not lose an inch of its territory. We will continue to uphold our territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

He directed the AFP to defend the country’s territory amid a new security landscape and the South China Sea dispute. He also revitalized the country’s security relations with the United States by implementing the 2014 Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and increasing the number of joint locations for American forces from five to nine Philippine bases. The annual US-Philippine Balikatan military exercises will be held in April with the participation of Australia and Japan.

The Philippines also discusses opportunities for joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea with the United States, Australia, Japan, and the European Union.

Aside from these efforts, President Marcos Jr. aims to elevate the country’s relations with Australia into a strategic partnership, as discussed during Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit to the Philippines.

President Marcos Jr. knows that closer economic relations with China will not moderate its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. Only vigorous reactions to its gray zone operations will prevent it from realizing its goal of “winning without actually fighting.”

Dr. Renato Cruz 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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