The Philippines pushes back against China’s maritime militia in the Julian Felipe Reef

The Julian Felipe (or Whitsun) Reef. Photo: NASA, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With China’s recent incursions into the South China Sea, the Philippines is taking a stronger stance to protect its maritime territories. 

By Andrea Chloe Wong

“I am no fool… The weather has been good so far, so they have no other reason to stay there. These vessels should be on their way out. Umalis na kayo dyan. (Get out of there).” 

This was the scathing statement of the Philippines’ Secretary of National Defense, Delfin Lorenzana, against the presence of Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe (or Whitsun) Reef, an area near the Philippines named after the composer of the country’s national anthem. According to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, the Philippine Coast Guard detected around 220 Chinese vessels on March 7 near the reef, which lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

A war of words between Philippines and China 

In response to Lorenzana’s statement, the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines asserted Beijing’s claims to the area and tried to justify the presence of its vessels, saying “The Niu’e Jiao is part of China’s Nansha Islands… It is completely normal for Chinese fishing vessels to fish in the waters and take shelter near the reef during rough sea conditions.” The embassy also declared that “nobody has the right to make wanton remarks on such activities,” and warned against “any unprofessional remarks which may further fan irrational emotions.”

However, the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) rejected these claims and clarified that “tradition yields to law.” It also mentioned the July 12, 2016 decision on the South China Sea by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which ruled that claims based on historic rights exceeding the legal geographic limits of maritime entitlements have no legal standing. The DFA likewise maintained that the decision, which was based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and signed by both the Philippines and China, settled the issue of historic rights and maritime entitlements conclusively for the South China Sea. 

Members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg Photo: Asitimes shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Making sense of China’s maritime militia 

Based on the report by the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, the Chinese vessels spotted in the Julian Felipe reef are crewed by China’s maritime militia. China describes its militia as an “armed mass organization” composed of civilians with regular jobs, as well as an “auxiliary and reserve force” of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This militia operates civilian vessels that are usually engaged in commercial fishing but can conduct maritime surveillance and support naval operations. According to 

According to RAND Corporation researchers Derek Grossman and Logan Ma, China’s maritime militia aims to “win without fighting” by employing “gray zone” tactics that can cause maritime conflicts without crossing the threshold into conventional war.

Given these dynamics, the presence of Chinese maritime militia in the Julian Felipe Reef is disturbing. According to Antonio Carpio, a legal representatives of the Philippines during its  arbitration case, these Chinese militia vessels cannot moor at the reef “because that is not their exclusive economic zone.” He also warned that their presence “may be a prelude to occupation and building of a naval base,” which would bolster China’s claim of administrative jurisdiction over contested areas.

This latest maritime incursion is reminiscent of previous Chinese intrusions into the Philippines’ EEZ. Since 1988, China has occupied the Zamora (or Subi) Reef and it has become China’s largest artificial island in the Spratlys, with buildings, garrisons, runways and radar equipment. In 1995, China began constructing what it claimed were shelters for its fishers at the Panganiban (or Mischief) Reef, only to develop them years later into an air and naval base. China’s current presence in Philippine waters also bears a striking resemblance to its takeover of the Panatag (or Scarborough) Shoal in 2012 after the Philippines left the area following an intense two-month standoff. China has since erected a barrier to the entrance of the shoal to block Philippine vessels.  

Some analysts consider the consequence of these Chinese incursions as a “fait accompli.” Most of them involve an overwhelming presence of China’s maritime militia vessels that seeks to effectively isolate an island or reef within the Philippines’ EEZ and bring it under de facto Chinese control. China then builds structures or military outposts on these features that will further fortify its territorial claims in the South China Sea.     

Photo: U.S. Pacific Fleet shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Show of force by the Philippines and US 

As the Philippines’ security ally, the US condemned the presence of China’s maritime militia at the Julian Felipe Reef. In addition to publicly declaring support for the Philippines, the US sent an aircraft carrier and assault ship to the reef along with an escort of submarines, destroyers and cruisers. The US coordinated with the Philippine government, which deployed its corvette and missile frigates for sovereignty patrols to challenge China. 

The display of firepower by the Philippines and the US resulted in China withdrawing several ships from the reef. As of April 13, most of them had left the area and less than 10 ships remained, but the rest were dispersed to other reefs in Philippine waters. Despite this, China’s pullout shows the impact of consolidated international action against its “gray zone” activities. According to Jerry Hendrix, a retired US Navy officer, “In the end, China realized that its continued presence was simply going to strengthen the resistance.”

China tests the alliance

China’s recent incursion is a strategic test for the current administrations in the Philippines and the US. Beijing is trying to push as far as it can, encroaching and possibly occupying more maritime features within the Philippines’ EEZ and hoping to get away with it under President Rodrigo Duterte.  China is also testing Washington’s reactions under President Joe Biden, who has yet to prove his hardline stance against Beijing beyond trade and economic sanctions. 

Yet the combined show of force by the Philippines and the US may serve as a cautionary notice to China. The Philippines’ defense and foreign affairs establishments are standing up against China’s contentious activities, despite the lack of public condemnation from Duterte. Moreover, Biden is proving that he is determined to repair US alliances that were undermined during the Trump administration. The recent military support for the Philippines proves that the Biden administration recognizes the importance of US alliances in checking China’s behavior

The Philippines stands strong 

It is uncertain whether the Philippines and the US will repeat their coordinated reaction when faced with China’s next provocation. But the recent exchange shows China is wary of possible military consequences and serves a reminder for the Philippine government that China may respect a show of force.

The recent dispute in the Julian Felipe Reef is a grim indication that China’s presence in the disputed waters is growing and remains a stubborn irritant in the Philippines’ bilateral relations. China’s intrusions into Philippine waters will become more conspicuous as Beijing takes advantage of Duterte’s last year in office, who has prioritized maintaining cordial bilateral relations throughout his term. Yet domestic pressure is mounting for Duterte to assert the country’s rights under the Court of Arbitration ruling and to thwart anticipated Chinese incursions. This latest maritime episode with China reveals that the Philippine government is slowly heeding its public’s call to be a fool no more. 

About the Author

Andrea Chloe Wong
Andrea Chloe Wong holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. She previously worked as a Senior Researcher at the Foreign Service Institute of the Philippines.