Anti-China alliance coalescing in South China Sea

Major powers are wading deeper into the South China Sea in a series of moves that promise to rile China while answering US calls for like-minded nations to counter jointly Beijing’s rising assertiveness in the crucial and contested maritime area.   

Japan recently announced a new package of defense aid to the Philippines, the first-ever under the official development assistance (ODA) mechanism. At the same time, the United Kingdom is deploying its largest-ever naval flotilla to the region in recent memory, led by the newly-minted aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.

An Australian and American company, meanwhile, are finalizing the takeover of a major shipyard in the strategically-located Subic Bay in the Philippines, part of a broader bid to ward off Chinese investment in the Southeast Asian country’s critical infrastructure.

China can be excused for feeling encircled in the sea. In a joint communiqué over the weekend, the foreign ministers of Group of Seven (G7) countries expressed “strong opposition to any unilateral actions that escalate tensions and undermine regional stability and the international rules-based order, such as the threat or use of force, large-scale land reclamation and building of outposts, as well as their use for military purposes.”

The G7 is comprised of the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Canada and Japan. The statement fell short of directly naming China, but its timing and relevance were unmistakable.

In response, China fired back by calling on G7 powers “to abide by their promise of not taking sides on territorial disputes, respect the efforts by regional countries, stop all irresponsible words and actions, and make constructive contribution to regional peace and stability.”

Buoyed by growing international support, China skeptics within the Philippine government have adopted an increasingly tough stance in the South China Sea, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s efforts to keep relations with Beijing on an even keel.

This week, Duterte chided Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr for dropping the F-bomb and characterizing China as an “ugly oaf” in a series of undiplomatic remarks expressed over Twitter towards China amid escalating tensions in the South China Sea.

“China remains our benefactor and … just because we have a conflict with China does not mean to say that we have to be rude and disrespectful. As a matter of fact, we have many things to thank China for – both its help in the past and its aid today,” said Duterte, who himself is notorious for his own cuss-laced rhetoric against opponents.

Duterte’s diplomatic chief followed suit with a public apology over his Twitter account. “I just don’t want to lose my friendship with the most elegant mind in diplomacy with manners to match,” Locsin said, referring to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, whom he described as his “idol in diplomacy.”

There are, however, few signs that the Philippines is backing down from its increasingly tough stance on China. On Tuesday, the Southeast Asian country categorically opposed a China-imposed fishing ban in parts of the South China Sea, which overlap with the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf.

“This fishing ban does not apply to our fishermen,” the Philippines’ interagency task force on the South China Sea said in a statement, calling on Filipino fishermen to ignore Beijing’s moratorium on fishing activities from May 1 to August 16.

The Philippine Coast Guard and Philippine Navy have also vowed to continue their “sovereignty patrols” in the disputed areas, where the Southeast Asian country occupies as many as nine land features, mostly in the Spratly group of islands.

Last month, even the Beijing-friendly Duterte stood his ground by stating, “There are things which are not really subject to a compromise, such as us pulling back [from fishing and patrols in the area]” 

“I’ll tell China, we do not want trouble, we do not want war. But if you tell us to leave — no,” he added.

Amid the Philippine-China standoff, the US has deployed multiple warships to the area in an unmistakable show of support to its Southeast Asian ally. The US also deployed as many 65 surveillance aircraft to the disputed areas in April, according to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) based in Beijing.

Meanwhile, the UK has deployed its largest naval armada in years, featuring an aircraft carrier, destroyers, frigates, a submarine, and auxiliary supply vessels.

“When our Carrier Strike Group (CSG) sets [in May], it will be flying the flag for Global Britain – projecting our influence, signaling our power, engaging with our friends and reaffirming our commitment to addressing the security challenges of today and tomorrow,” announced UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace.

The UK’s deployment is part of emerging multilateral Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea pointed at China. Last year, the US and Australia conducted joint patrols in the area amid a standoff between Malaysia and China over energy exploration activities in the sea.

The British contingent, which will sail throughout the Indo-Pacific and Asia’s contested waters, will be accompanied by US Marine Corps F-35Bs and a US Navy destroyer as well as a Dutch frigate. Later this year, Germany is also expected to conduct its first-ever patrols and joint drills in China’s adjacent waters.

In another first, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) recently announced a 120 million yen (US$1.1 million) non-lethal aid defense package, including engine cutters, sonar equipment and jackhammers as part of Japan’s annual ODA to the Philippines.

Crucially, a contingent of JSDF personnel will train their Filipino counterparts in utilizing the new equipment for ostensibly Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations.

In recent years, Japan has emerged as an unlikely source of maritime security assistance to the Philippines. Last August, the two US allies signed a $100 million agreement that will allow Mitsubishi Electric Corp to export an air radar system to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Earlier, Japan also donated a surveillance aircraft and built as many ten 44-meter-long patrol vessels for the Philippine Coast Guard, with two 94-meter-long larger patrol vessels expected to be deployed next year.

The US-led multinational pushback against China, however, is not only confined to naval drills and maritime security aid. Major Western companies are also actively expanding their footprint in the Philippines’ critical infrastructure and strategically-located facilities near the South China Sea.

Australia’s Austal, in partnership with Cerberus Capital Management, are set to finalize their acquisition of the Hanjin shipyards at Subic Bay in the Philippines, which regularly hosts major naval drills by the US, Australia and Japan along with the Philippine military.

Both Austal, a major shipbuilding and defense contractor, and Cerebus have strong ties to the Pentagon, underscoring the strategic element of the latest corporate purchase. Austal, which builds warships for the US Navy, is also expected to provide up to 6 offshore patrol boats for the AFP.

In 2019, several state-affiliated Chinese companies expressed interest in the purchase of the 300-hectare (741-acre) shipyard owned by South Korean Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction. The Philippine defense establishment and key allies such as the US, Australia and Japan, however, quickly scrambled to block China’s bid.

“Having a US-Australian flag flying makes it a very friendly place for us to go and try to win more support for deployed vessels,” said Austal chief executive Paddy Gregg, underscoring the strategic importance of the joint Australian-American acquisition.

Australia’s ambassador to the Philippines, Steven Robinson, was also straightforward about the geopolitical significance of the acquisition deal.

“That Hanjin facility, if that comes to the fore, would be a marvelous way to enable [Austal’s growth] in the Philippines, in conjunction with the facility that it has already invested in significantly,” said the Australian envoy in a widely-covered press briefing at which he emphasized Canberra’s “principles-based position” on the South China Sea disputes.

“What we say is that all countries should subscribe to the rules and the norms and the laws that govern free passage through international waters,” he added without directly naming China.