One year ago, at midnight of June 9, 2019, a Chinese fishing vessel suddenly rammed and sank a wooden Filipino fishing boat, the F/B Gim Vir 1, which was anchored at the Reed Bank. The captain of the ill-fated Gim Vir 1 claimed that the incident was deliberate since the crew of the Chinese vessel saw his fishing vessel before the collision. Ship captain Jonnel Insigne observed that the Chinese vessel turned its lights on seconds before it rammed the Gim Vir 1. It fled the scene with its lights off after the smaller and wooden Filipino boat began to sink with all its catch and equipment.
He told reporters that they expected the Chinese crew would pick them out of the water after their boat sank. The Chinese vessel, however, immediately left the Filipinos alone in the dark, cold, and dangerous waters of the South China Sea. The 22 Filipino fishermen abandoned their boat and struggled to keep themselves afloat and alive for more than six hours. Fortunately, a Vietnamese fishing vessel rescued all the Filipino fishermen.
SPOOKING THE PHILIPPINE NAVY
On Aug. 15, 2019, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced the incursion of several People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) warships into the country’s territorial waters without prior coordination with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Based on an AFP report written after a routine Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) operation in the southern Philippine island of Tawi-Tawi, the four Chinese warships passed through the country’s porous southern backdoor. It was then observed that the ships’ sailing pattern appeared to be highly suspicious as they were zigzagging and not sailing straight as civilian ships should do when performing the rights of innocent passage. Thus, these warships’ transit in Philippine waters could not be considered innocent passage because they followed a curved course. Secretary Lorenzana opined that China was taunting the Philippines because the Chinese warships’ Automatic Identification System (AIS) was switched off and ignored the radio communications from the AFP units that were observing their passage in Sibutu Straits in Tawi-Tawi.
On Feb. 17 this year, a PLAN corvette directed its Gun Control Director (GCD) against the Philippine Navy’s (PN) newly acquired anti-submarine corvette the BRP Conrado Yap (PS-39) in the Spratlys. While it was on its way to Rizal (Commodore Reef) Reef Detachment, the BRP Conrad Yap established radar contact with another gray ship, a PLAN corvette with bow number 514. The PS-39 visually observed that PLAN ship’s GCD was pointed on it. The GCD is a mechanical or electronic computer that continuously calculates trigonometric firing solutions used to designate and to track potential targets and transmits targeting data to direct the weapon firing crew. The BRP Conrado Yap’s crew members claimed that the Chinese ship’s gun-firing mechanism was aimed at them. If the corvette’s GCD was indeed pointed at the PS-39, then this is the first time that a PLAN warship directly threatened a Philippine public vessel in the South China Sea.
CHINESE GRAY ZONE OPERATIONS
These maritime incidents are examples of Chinese gray operations conducted against the Philippines. Gray zone operations are “actions in the sea that often blur the between military and non-military platforms, actions, and attribution for events, and are often, but not always, undertaken to advance China’s territorial claims.” They are conducted to keep Chinese aggression at sea below the level of actual naval operation and are performed hidden behind the cloak of deniability. These complicate the littoral states’ ability to effectively respond to China’s expansion in the South China Sea.
Unfortunately, the country’s political leaders have down-played these gray operations conducted against Filipino fishing boats and naval vessels. In the aftermath of the June 9 F/B Gim Vir 1 incident, President Rodrigo Duterte adopted and even parroted the Chinese foreign ministry’s position that “it was an ordinary maritime traffic incident.” Secretary Lorenzana dismissed the Feb. 17 PN-PLAN incident in the West Philippine Sea as a routine matter given that the Chinese navy has no intention of hurting Filipinos even after its corvette directed its GCD against the BRP Conrado Yap. He even asserted his view that China would never attack Philippine vessels and aircraft passing through the disputed waters.
Downplaying or ignoring these incidents enables China to advance its agenda of maritime expansion through distinctly subtle aggressive actions that do not generate serious and effective responses from targeted states like the Philippines. Thus, China finds no more need to embark on a major naval operation to control the disputed waters because it has no need for it. China will eventually gain virtual control over the fishing grounds and strategic waterways in the South China Sea without sparking open conflicts with the littoral states of Southeast Asia.
[Dr. Renato de Castro is a trustee and convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the Stratbase ADR Institute.]