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Bullhorns and water cannons: China ships wall off South China Sea

The mounting Chinese military presence in waters that were long dominated by the US fleet is sharpening the possibility of a showdown between superpowers

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The Chinese military base on Mischief Reef, off the Philippine island of Palawan, loomed in front of our boat, obvious even in the predawn dark.

Radar domes, used for military surveillance, floated like nimbus clouds. Lights pointed to a runway made for fighter jets, backed by warehouses perfect for surface-to-air missiles. More than 900 miles from the Chinese mainland, in an area of the South China Sea that an international tribunal has unequivocally determined does not belong to China, cellphones pinged with a message: “Welcome to China.”

The world’s most brazen maritime militarisation is gaining muscle in waters through which one-third of global ocean trade passes. Here, on underwater reefs that are known as the Dangerous Ground, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, has fortified an archipelago of forward operating bases that have branded these waters as China’s despite having no international legal grounding. China’s coast guard, navy and a fleet of fishing trawlers harnessed into a militia are confronting other vessels, civilian and military alike.

The mounting Chinese military presence in waters that were long dominated by the US fleet is sharpening the possibility of a showdown between superpowers at a moment when relations between them have greatly worsened. And as Beijing challenges a Western-driven security order that stood for nearly eight decades, regional countries are increasingly questioning the strength of the American commitment to the Pacific.

While the United States makes no territorial claims to the South China Sea, it maintains defense pacts with Asian partners, including the Philippines, that could compel American soldiers to these waters. Just as anxiety over nearby Taiwan has focused attention on the deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing, the South China Sea provides yet another stage for a contest in which neither side wants to betray weakness. Complicating matters, Chinese diplomats and military officers are engaging less at a time when open communication could help defuse tensions.

China’s arming of the South China Sea has also forced Southeast Asian fishermen — from nations like the Philippines that Chinese diplomats have referred to as “small countries” — to abandon the fishing grounds they have depended on for generations. It is putting tremendous pressure on those governments.
“I told the Chinese, ‘Your leadership talks about shared prosperity, but what you are doing cannot make it more plain that you think we are just stupid people who can be fooled and bullied,’” said Clarita Carlos, who until January served as the national security adviser of the Philippines. “The interconnected oceans should be our common heritage, and we should be working with marine scientists from every nation to fight the real enemy: climate change.”

“Instead,” she added, “the Chinese are building military bases on artificial islands and bringing guns to the sea.”

During a four-day sail through a collection of rocks, reefs and islets called the Spratlys that are within the Dangerous Ground, New York Times journalists saw the extent to which China’s projection of power has transformed this contested part of the Pacific Ocean. Not since the United States embarked on its own campaign of far-flung militarisation more than a century ago, leading its armed forces toward a position of Pacific primacy, has the security landscape shifted so significantly. It is hard to imagine how China’s armed presence in the South China Sea will be diminished absent a war. With its bases built and its military vessels deployed, Beijing is forcefully defending its assertions of “indisputable sovereignty.”

That posture was on display in May as The Times’s small, chartered boat passed within two nautical miles of Mischief Reef.

A PLA Navy tugboat lingering in the vicinity had failed to stop us, perhaps because of the early-morning hour. But as we approached the Chinese military base, the tugboat, about 2.5 times the size of our vessel, churned water to reach us, turning on its floodlights and blasting its horn repeatedly. Over the radio, we were told that we had intruded into Chinese territorial waters.

Our boat was Philippine-flagged, and an international tribunal convened by the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in 2016 that Mischief Reef was part of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines. China has ignored that ruling. In a radio exchange, we said we were allowed to sail through these waters.

The PLA tugboat responded with more barrages of its horn, a sonic assault so piercing that we felt it in our bodies. Then, with its floodlights nearly blinding us, the PLA tugboat rushed at our vessel, swiping within 20 meters of our much smaller boat. This was a clear breach of international maritime protocol, maritime experts said.

As dawn broke, we could see both the fortifications on Mischief Reef and an array of Chinese vessels closing in from different directions: half a dozen maritime militia boats and a recently commissioned navy corvette designed to carry anti-ship missiles. The navy tugboat stayed near, too.

On other occasions, Chinese coast guard and militia vessels have rammed, doused with water cannons and sunk civilian boats in the South China Sea. In 2019, for instance, 22 Filipino fishermen were left to float amid the wreckage of their boat for six hours after a Chinese militia vessel struck them. Danger extends overhead. In May, a Chinese fighter jet sliced past the nose of a US Air Force reconnaissance plane flying through international air space over the South China Sea, echoing an incident last December when a Chinese fighter came within 20 feet of an American plane.

Zhou Bo, a retired PLA colonel who is now a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said that claimant nations and the United States — which conducts regular air and sea patrols in the South China Sea — should accept Beijing’s contention that this is Chinese turf.

©2023 The New York Times News Service

Philippines condemns China’s ‘floating barrier’

The Philippines has accused China’s coast guard of installing a “floating barrier” in a disputed area of the South China Sea, saying it prevented Filipinos from entering and fishing in the area.
Manila’s coast guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources “strongly condemn” China's installation of the barrier in part of the Scarborough Shoal, Commodore Jay Tarriela, a coast guard spokesperson, posted on the X social media platform. The barrier blocking fishermen from the shoal was depriving them of their fishing and livelihood activities”, he said.
“The (Philippine Coast Guard) will continue to work closely with all concerned government agencies to address these challenges, uphold our maritime rights and protect our maritime domains,” Tarriela said.
The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
China claims 90 per cent of the South China Sea, overlapping with the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines. Beijing seized the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and forced fishermen from the Philippines to travel further for smaller catches. 

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First Published: Sep 24 2023 | 10:37 PM IST

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