South China Sea: ‘upsurge’ in Chinese vessels as Balikatan drills with US begin ‘out of the norm’, Philippines says

The 124 vessels included three from the Chinese navy and 11 from its coastguard, Trinidad said. But the biggest increase was detected in the number of maritime militia vessels, which rose from a low of 50 over the previous two weeks to 110 this week.

“So there is a surge in the presence of maritime militia specifically in Bajo de Masinloc and Pag-asa,” he said, referring to the Filipino names for Scarborough Shoal and Thitu Island, respectively. Both are located in the South China Sea.

This year’s edition of the Balikatan drills kicked off on Monday, involving more than 16,000 troops from the US and 5,000 from the Philippines, as well as Australian and French armed forces.

In a first for Balikatan, some of this year’s exercises are taking place outside the Philippines’ 12 nautical-mile territorial waters into the waters of the South China Sea, where Manila is currently locked in an escalating territorial dispute with Beijing.
Last month, vessels from China’s coastguard and maritime militia impeded and fired water cannons at Philippine coastguard ships accompanying boats on a supply mission to Manila’s military outpost on the Second Thomas Shoal, injuring three Filipino sailors.
Major General Marvin Licudine (left), the Philippines’ exercise director for the drills, unfurls a Balikatan flag with his US counterpart Lieutenant General William Jurney at an opening ceremony in Quezon City on Monday. Photo: AFP

Major General Marvin Licudine, the Philippines’ exercise director for Balikatan, said on Monday that the presence of Chinese vessels within the vicinity of the exercises was expected.

“Surely, I would say that we will expect that because they have been there since they have structures in these areas,” Licudine said, referring to China’s island building in the disputed waterway.

“We always adhere to international law and the freedom of navigation. So I think we would not see any problem as long as we follow international law.”

Licudine also said the drills were not aimed at any specific party.

“Yes, it’s the first time that we are going beyond our territory. But for the US and Philippine side, it’s more on the development of interoperability, our collective effort, protection of international law, and the freedom of navigation in these areas,” he said.

US and Filipino Marines take part in a jungle survival drill in the southern Philippines earlier this month as part of the Balikatan exercises. Photo: Philippine Marine Corps – Public Affairs Office via EPA-EFE

Political analyst Sherwin Ona, an associate professor of political science at De La Salle University in the Philippines and an auxiliary officer in the Philippine coastguard, told This Week in Asia that the upsurge had two possible aims.

The first is projecting the message that China has de facto control over the disputed waterway – thus reinforcing its maritime claims – while the second is to “disrupt or complicate any planned Balikatan activities in the area”.

“I believe that the use of Chinese maritime militia is a tactic to reinforce its victim narrative once a confrontation at sea occurs. I think it will use the [vessels] to turn public opinion, portraying China as a victim of coercion,” he said.

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Chinese floating barrier blocks entrance to Philippine ships at South China Sea flashpoint

Chinese floating barrier blocks entrance to Philippine ships at South China Sea flashpoint

Ray Powell, a retired US Air Force officer who is now a maritime security analyst, raised the possibility that the number of Chinese maritime militia vessels may not have actually increased, but had rather made themselves easier to detect.

“The China Coast Guard is often there but undetectable, going completely ‘dark’ on its automatic information system [AIS] signals or broadcasting on the weaker ‘Class B’ only,” Powell said.

“Going dark”, according to Powell, means strategically turning off a vessel’s AIS transponder to avoid detection, while Class B refers to a weaker type of AIS signal, typically used by smaller vessels, that often transmit at a lower power with less frequent updates and have a shorter range.

China to retaliate against ‘unjust provocation’ in maritime disputes: commander

The 39th edition of the annual Balikatan exercises is being carried out under the auspices of the US-Philippine Mutual Defence Treaty, a 1951 agreement that calls on both countries to aid each other in times of aggression by an external power. The Pentagon has said it is prepared to assist Manila if it invokes the treaty amid threats from other nations.
One of the main events of this year’s Balikatan will be an exercise involving the coordinated sinking of the BRP Lake Caliraya – the Philippine Navy’s only Chinese-made naval asset – off the coast of Laoag in Ilocos Norte. Manila said the choice of target was “not intentional”.

“We didn’t know that it was made in China. It just so happened that among all of the vessels that we checked, it’s the one that’s still floating, and it was the right size for our exercise,” Army Colonel Michael Logico, the Philippines’ spokesman for the Balikatan drills, said on Monday.

Another exercise pertaining to deterring a ground invasion will take place in Batanes, the Philippine’s northernmost province closest to Taiwan.

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