Chinese slice off another chunk of the Philippines
For all the talk of the South China Sea and its territorial disputes calming down, China is still at it, using its favorite spy-and-invasion tool, fishing boats, to take over another country's island.
There's a new name in the South China Sea's growing list of flashpoints: Thitu Island. While nowhere near the scale of Fiery Cross or Mischief Reefs, this island and bundle of low-lying sandbars off the Philippines coast is just as significant.
It's a prosperous fishing spot. And it's another potential territorial marker in the hotly contested international waterway.
Now, China has physically staked its claim over the sandbars that surround it.
Filipino fishermen say they are being driven away from their traditional fishing grounds, by Chinese boats.
Here are some maps:
Source: CIA-WFB, with annotation in red by me.
Source: Google Maps.
Here's what a mayor of a Palawan town with Filipino fishermen says is now happening:
Thitu Island itself is home to a Philippines slipway, jetty, runway and anchorage. But fishermen attempting to operate from there are being turned back as soon as they approach the nearest sandbar just 3km off the island's coast.
"It means they (the Chinese) think they own it because they refuse to leave. If they’re just really fishing, they can leave for Subi Reef and then come back, but they no longer leave," [Kalayaan Mayor Roberto] Del Mundo said.
"The presence of Chinese boats is now affecting our fishing activities. It wasn't that way before. When our fishermen is about to get near Sandbar 3, that is really our fishing ground, a Chinese vessel would immediately come up to us to ward us off so we can’t come closer."
The takeover is notable for two reasons.
First, it shows that the Chinese are still using their favorite tool for muscling in on territory — fishing boats, which appear to be so commercial and unthreatening — as weapons against innocent territorial vessels that are actually trying to make a living. I've been to conferences at the RAND Institute in recent years, learning there that those boats are what intelligence officials recognize as the Beijing government's favorite tool. Fishing boats are regularly dispatched to conduct surveillance and spy operations, as well as serve as fronts for military muscle. They have also been known to ram the boats of real fishing operations from other countries. Obviously, this is what they are doing now, this time against the Philippines, in what is clearly a Philippine island as determined by international law. AFP reports that the island was explicitly declared theirs by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, years earlier. It shows that for China, support for international law is pretty selective. And now its use of fishing boats to achieve military aims is part and parcel of its military buildup, which it claims to be "no threat" to other countries. This is what the Chinese mean when they say "no threat." It bears striking similarities to Russia's Vladimir Putin's stealthy takeover of eastern Ukraine, through an undeclared war.
Second, the activity is directly the result of the Duterte administration of the Philippines' appeasement policies with China. The AFP story notes that the Duterte administration tore down a fisherman's shack on Thitu at the Chinese government's request in 2017. Just as important, yet not cited by AFP, they also squelched the construction of a U.S. military base on Palawan — that long, narrow island jutting at an odd angle from the Philippine archipelago — which had been in planning for years (author Robert D. Kaplan describes it in Imperial Grunts), which would have provided a measure of deterrence as well as intelligence capabilities to ward off challenges. Taiwanese officials have told me they suspect that some Filipino officials have been bought off.
For their efforts, they're now getting...fishing boats, the famous Chinese fishing boats running the genuine Philippine fishermen off their own fishing grounds and denying them access to their island.
It shows that appeasing the dragon in the hopes it would eat them last is not working out well for them. China has its choice of countries to kick around, given the six nations that have territorial claims on the Spratlys, and they have chosen the appeasing one, the Philippines. One can only hope that there will be some domestic repercussions in the Philippines for Duterte over this stupdity.
The U.S. naval mission of keeping the sea lanes open has gotten just a little harder.
Hat tip: John McMahon