A political standoff between China and the Philippines over a reef in the South China Sea has begun to subside, while Taiwan reacts to a new normal of continuous Chinese military activity around the island nation. In the background of both developments, the Biden administration is coordinating with its treaty allies—the Philippines and Japan—to confront an aggressive maritime posture from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Spratlys in the Gray Zone
On April 8, a China Coast Guard vessel and two Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy Type-22 Houbei missile boats chased Philippine ABS-CBN journalists out of the Spratly Islands (Malay: Kepulauan Spratly; Mandarin: Nansha Qundao; Philippines: Kapuluan ng Kalayaan; Vietnamese: Quần đảo Trường Sa). The news team was in a civilian motor boat en route to Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal (Mandarin: Ren'ai Jiao; Tagalog: Ayungin Shoal; Vietnamese: Bãi Cỏ Mây) in the Spratlys. The journalists maintain that they were about to reach Second Thomas Shoal and were well within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines when the PRC vessels arrived. An hour-long chase ensued. The China Coast Guard vessel turned away when the news crew was around 80 nautical miles from the Philippines’ mainland Palawan island, only to be replaced by two PLA Navy Houbeis.
Second Thomas Shoal is home to the intentionally grounded Philippine vessel Sierra Madre and lies about 20 nautical miles east of Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef (Chinese: Meiji Jiao; Tagalog: Panganiban; Vietnamese: Đá Vành Khăn). There are no PRC-occupied features between Second Thomas Shoal and Palawan, suggesting that the PRC vessels traveled east from Mischief Reef to intercept the news team between the shoal and the Philippine mainland. ABS-CBN posted videos of the incident on YouTube, with further Philippine media coverage on Twitter.
The incident occured during a tense period between the Philippines and China in the Spratlys. Between December 2020 and March 2021, a buildup of approximately 220 Chinese fishing boats and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia vessels congregated around Whitsun Reef (Mandarin: Niu’e Jiao; Tagalog: Julian Felipe Reef; Vietnamese: Đá Ba Đầu;). Whitsun is an unoccupied low-tide elevation in the larger reef formation of Union Banks, about 170 nautical miles west of Palawan. The Philippines, the PRC and Vietnam all claim Whitsun Reef. The reef is also in a geostrategic location of the Spratlys, lying between PRC military facilities on Fiery Cross (Mandarin: Yongshu Jiao; Tagalog: Kagitingan; Vietnamese: Đá Chữ Thập) and Mischief Reefs.
Videos of the Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef depict commercial-sized “fishing” ships—some around 200-feet long—anchored in calm seas. Reports from the Philippine government and media described the number of vessels steadily in March, sparking fears of impending PRC reclamation activity in the Spratlys. Both U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan publicly expressed their concerns about the PRC actions toward the end of March. A retired U.S. Navy captain characterized PRC actions at Whitsun Reef as “a test of the Biden administration.”
On the day of the ABS-CBN chase, Blinken spoke with Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. According to the U.S. State Department’s published readout, the countries expressed their “shared concerns with the massing of PRC maritime militia vessels in the South China Sea, including at Whitsun Reef, and reiterated their calls on the PRC to abide by the 2016 arbitration ruling issued pursuant to the Law of the Sea Convention.” Blinken also reaffirmed that the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the South China Sea. On April 10, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with his Philippine counterpart to reaffirm their nations’ alliance and to discuss “the recent massing of People’s Republic of China maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef.”
The high-level attention to this low-tide elevation appears to have paid off for the Philippines. The number of Chinese vessels at the reef dropped to 44 on March 31 and nine on April 13, as the vessels dispersed throughout the South China Sea. Still, on April 13, the Philippine government summoned the Chinese ambassador to tell Beijing to remove the remaining vessels at Whitsun and announced that the Philippines would deploy another Philippine Coast Guard cutter and four Philippine Navy vessels to its claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines has also filed multiple diplomatic protests against the PRC in recent weeks, claiming that the Chinese vessels are “fishing everything in the water that belongs by law to [the Philippines].” The PRC Embassy in Manila has countered that there has been “no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged” at Whitsun and that the vessels were taking shelter due to “rough sea conditions.” The Philippines noted that the region has experienced weeks of “clear weather.”
The PRC “gray-zone” strategy—coercive force short of war—of using fishing boats and Chinese military militia to occupy reefs may be “unprecedented in scale and notable for its duration,” but it is still reminiscent of past PRC actions in the South China Sea. Most notably, in 2012, the PRC seized Scarborough Shoal (Mandarin: Huangyan Dao; Tagalog: Panatag) from de facto Philippine control after a Philippine warship failed to evict Chinese fishing boats anchored inside the shoal, 190 nautical miles west of Manila. In the ensuing standoff and a U.S.-brokered agreement, the Philippines withdrew its vessels before typhoon season arrived, but the PRC ships never left. The China Coast Guard continues to deny Philippine fishermen access to Scarborough Shoal.
The U.S. and Chinese navies have also increased their presence in the South China Sea amid the tension. On April 9, the U.S. Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group conducted a joint exercise as an Expeditionary Strike Force in the South China Sea. A day later, the Liaoning Carrier Strike Group entered the South China Sea through the Luzon Strait.
Taiwan’s New Normal
Military Shows of Force
Just north of the Philippines, Taiwan also faces an increased PRC military presence. The Liaoning Carrier Strike Group sailed east of Taiwan through the Miyako Strait near Okinawa on April 4. The PLA forces then conducted naval drills near Taiwan, days before entering the South China Sea. For the first time ever, a PLAN Type 055 Renhai-class stealth-guided missile destroyer escorted the Liaoning. The Type 055 destroyer is equipped with 112 vertical launch missile cells, double that of the Type 052D Luyang III-class destroyers. A PLA Navy statement promised that such naval exercises near Taiwan will continue to occur “on a regular basis.”
The PLA naval exercises, in conjunction with daily PRC military aircraft incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), constitute a new normal for Taiwan. As covered previously, PLA aircraft began regularly crossing the “median line” separating the mainland from Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait in March 2019, before conducting near-daily incursions into Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ in 2020. Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense has accused the PRC of using military exercises and gray-zone tactics to wear down Taiwanese forces. The recent Liaoning exercises prompted Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu to say that Taiwan would “fight a war if we need to fight a war, and if we need to defend ourselves to the very last day, then we will defend ourselves to the very last day.“
During the Liaoning Carrier Strike Group exercises, the USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) transited the Taiwan Strait—the fourth Taiwan Strait transit by a U.S. destroyer during the Biden administration. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman blamed U.S. ships for the “provocations” and rhetorically questioned if “a Chinese warship [would] go to the Gulf of Mexico to make a show of strength.” Such a transit, like the John S. McCain’s, would be lawful. Article 87 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows for high seas transits of warships, and Article 17 provides for “innocent passage” through the territorial seas of another coastal state. Indeed, five Chinese warships conducted an innocent passage through U.S. territorial seas near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in 2015.
U.S.-Taiwan Diplomatic Developments
The United States is also increasing its diplomatic engagement with Taiwan. On April 9, the U.S. State Department issued relaxed guidelines for U.S. officials meeting with their Taiwanese counterparts. Although the United States and Taiwan have “unofficial relations,” the guidelines encourage working-level meetings in federal buildings and Taiwan’s offices. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had eliminated previous restrictions on U.S. officials’ contacts with Taiwan prior to leaving office, but there had been little guidance in the final days of the Trump administration. The Taiwan Assurance Act, which Congress passed in December 2020, required the State Department to review its guidelines for U.S. officials within 180 days of the legislation’s passage.
On April 11, Secretary Blinken said the United States was concerned about the PRC’s “increasingly aggressive actions” toward Taiwan. He noted the “serious [U.S.] commitment to Taiwan being able to defend itself” under the Taiwan Relations Act. He added that “[i]t would be a serious mistake by anyone to try to change that status quo by force.”
A day later, Taiwan recorded the largest-ever Chinese military incursion into Taiwan’s southwestern ADIZ. A total of 25 aircraft entered Taiwan’s airspace, including 14 J-16 fighters, four J-10 fighters, four H-6K bombers, two anti-submarine aircraft and an early warning aircraft. These incursions have occurred daily for several months, often in the southwestern ADIZ between Taiwan island and Taiwan-occupied Pratas Island (Mandarin: Dongsha Dao) in the South China Sea. The ADIZ also coincides with the Luzon Strait south of Taiwan, where U.S. warships often enter the South China Sea. In January, PLA aircraft conducted a Taiwan ADIZ incursion while simulating an airborne strike on a U.S. aircraft carrier transiting the strait. A PRC Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson said the recent PLA military drills near Taiwan demonstrate that the PRC is “determined to stop Taiwan independence, and stop Taiwan from working with the US. We are doing it with action.”
The 25-aircraft ADIZ incursion on April 12 preceded the arrival of an unofficial U.S. delegation to Taiwan. The Biden administration’s delegation included former Sen. Christopher Dodd and former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg. A White House official called the delegation a “personal signal” of Biden’s commitment to Taiwan. The PRC was not thrilled. Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the Global Times reported that the delegation shows how “Biden gropes his way” for his Taiwan policy. On April 15, the same day the delegates met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the PLA began live-fire military exercises near Pratas Island.
Taiwan will be holding its own live-fire “anti-landing” drills on Pratas Island on April 25 and May 5. Pratas lies approximately 170 nautical miles southeast of Hong Kong and 240 nautical miles southwest from Taiwan island. For the drills, Taiwanese Marines and the Taiwan Coast Guard will test-fire mortars, cannons and Kestrel rockets to simulate repelling an amphibious invasion. In light of Chinese drones recently spotted conducting surveillance over Pratas earlier in the April, a Taiwanese official threatened to shoot down future PLA drones over Pratas.
President Biden also discussed Taiwan with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga during the Biden administration’s first in-person White House summit with a foreign leader. The April 16 joint statement reiterated mutual “objections to China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea,” reaffirmed “strong shared interest in a free and open South China Sea governed by international law” consistent with UNCLOS, and highlighted the “importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” It was the first mention of Taiwan in a U.S.-Japan joint statement since Japan normalized relations with the PRC in 1969. The PRC Embassy in Washington said that the PRC “resolutely opposed” the joint statement and that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang are the PRC’s internal affairs beyond the scope of normal bilateral relations. Additionally, Biden and Suga reaffirmed that the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (Mandarin: Diaoyu Dao) fall under the protections against “an armed attack” in Article V of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.