New Developments in the West Philippine Sea Dispute

U.S. military personnel test their anti-aircraft (Avenger Missile System, Stinger) and anti-missile (Patriot surface-to-air missile system) assets at Naval Station Leovigildo Gantioqui in San Antonio, Zambales, Tuesday. PHOTO BY J. GERARD SEGUIA
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For the Philippines, 2023 was a year of significant developments in defense strategy. The country focused on building new alliances and reviving old ones, while also prioritizing external defense and continuing its ambitious military modernization program. These efforts were driven by the need to counter Beijing’s continued aggression in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

One of the notable achievements in 2023 was the agreement between Manila and Washington to build and operate four additional facilities on strategic military bases in the Philippines. This agreement, known as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), supplemented the five existing facilities. However, the expansion faced opposition from certain groups, including Cagayan Governor Manuel Mamba, who expressed concerns about the presence of US forces and contractors in his province.

Herman Tiu Laurel, the president of the Manila-based think tank Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), highlighted the potential threats to peace and stability in the region due to the renewed American presence through EDCA. He emphasized that peaceful resolutions through dialogue, compromise, and win-win solutions might be compromised with the increased military presence.

While some believe that EDCA may have contributed to the escalation of tensions in the WPS, maritime security expert and retired US Air Force Col. Ray Powell disagreed. Powell, the director of SeaLight and lead for Project Myoushu at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, stated that Beijing would have been agitated regardless of the expansion of EDCA. He viewed the agreement as providing Manila with increased leverage during discussions with Beijing, emphasizing the importance of strength and alliances when dealing with a larger and more aggressive country like China.

In 2023, China employed a different tactic to protect and defend its claims in the South China Sea. Chinese maritime militia (CMM) vessels were observed maintaining a presence in key features of the region, including areas within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Philippine security forces monitored these vessels during Maritime Patrol (Marpat) missions and Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) flights. Notable locations of CMM activity included Ayungin Shoal, where the grounded BRP Sierra Madre serves as a Philippine garrison, and Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground administered by the Philippines.

Chinese maritime militia vessels were also frequently sighted “swarming” around Pag-asa Island, Panganiban Reef, Rozul Reef, Escoda Shoal, and Baragatan Bank. This tactic of using maritime militia ships, instead of the navy or coast guard, allowed China to carry out actions while avoiding direct military confrontation. The presence of these vessels within the Philippine EEZ further heightened tensions in the region.

The Philippines’ defense efforts in 2023 demonstrated the country’s commitment to safeguarding its territorial integrity and protecting its national interests. By building alliances and leveraging partnerships, particularly with the United States, the Philippines aimed to strengthen its position when dealing with China’s assertiveness in the WPS. The presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels underscored the ongoing challenges faced by the Philippines and the need for continued vigilance in safeguarding its maritime territories.

In conclusion, 2023 was a significant year for the Philippines’ defense strategy. The country’s efforts to build alliances, revive old partnerships, and modernize its military were driven by the need to counter Beijing’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea. The expansion of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States faced opposition but also provided the Philippines with increased leverage in discussions with China. The presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels highlighted the ongoing challenges in the region and the importance of maintaining a strong defense posture.

Source: The Manila Times

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