On March 26, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense reported the incursion of 20 Chinese military aircraft in Taiwan’s southwest air defense identification zone (ADIZ). This is the largest incursion yet reported by the ministry. The Chinese aircraft included four nuclear-capable H-6K bombers, 10 J-16 fighter jets, two J-10 fighter jets, two Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft, one Y-8 reconnaissance aircraft, and a KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft. In response, Taiwan’s air force scrambled jets and deployed missiles to “monitor” the intruding planes.
Some of the Chinese planes flew over the Bashi Channel, which separates Taiwan and the Philippines. U.S. warships often sail through the channel when moving between the two countries, and a source close to the Taiwanese military said that this maneuver was to simulate attacking U.S. warships.
On April 1, Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration (CGA) announced that Chinese drones had flown above the Taiwanese-controlled Pratas Islands (Chinese: Dongsha Dao). The islands lie about 400 kilometers southwest of mainland Taiwan and 300 kilometers east of Hong Kong. A subsequent CGA report to Taiwan’s legislature claimed that the unmanned aerial vehicles may be gathering information on the area. The report also stated that the number of Chinese incursions on Taiwanese airspace has increased in past months. Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang has labeled the incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ as “unnecessary” and “thoughtless.”
The Chinese government has not commented on either the March 26 or April 1 incursion.
Japan’s “Two Plus Two” Meetings
With growing concern about Chinese military influence in the region, Japan is strengthening key military alliances and entering new defense pacts. In March, Japanese defense and foreign ministers held “two plus two” meetings with their American and Indonesian counterparts. Both meetings involved sharp criticism of China’s “coercion and aggression” in the region.
On March 16, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi met in Tokyo. The defense chiefs agreed to maintain close cooperation if a military conflict arises between China and Taiwan but did not discuss how the countries would coordinate, according to Japanese government sources.
President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga are planning to meet in person this week. In preparation for the meeting, Suga reiterated that “it is important for Japan and the United States to cooperate and use deterrence to create an environment where Taiwan and China can find a peaceful solution.”
Japanese officials also took part in a “two plus two” security talk with Indonesia’s foreign and defense ministers on March 30. The meeting resulted in the signing of a pact allowing Japan to transfer “defense equipment and technology” to Indonesia.
Showdown in the Spratlys
Tensions between China and the Philippines increased significantly in the past few weeks, as Chinese maritime militia vessels began massing at Whitsun Reef (Chinese: Niu’e Jiao; Vietnamese: Đá Ba Đầu; Philippines: Julian Felipe Reef) in the Spratly Islands (Malay: Kepulauan Spratly; Chinese: Nánshā Qúndǎo; Philippines: Kapuluan ng Kalayaan; Vietnamese: Quần đảo Trường Sa), well within the Philippines’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
Whitsun Reef is a low-tide feature (above water only at low tide) of Union Banks, a large atoll in the Spratly Islands. Both China and Vietnam already have military outposts in Union Banks: Vietnam on Grierson Reef (Chinese: Ranqing Shazhou; Philippines: Julian Felipe Reef; Vietnamese: Đảo Sinh Tồn Đông), Collins Reef (Chinese: Guihan Jiao; Philippines: Roxas Reef Vietnamese: Đá Cô Lin), Lansdowne Reef (Chinese: Qiong Jiao; Philippines: Pagkakaisa Reef; Vietnamese: Đá Len Đao) and Sin Cowe Island (Chinese: Jinghong Dao; Philippines: Rurok Island; Vietnamese: Đảo Sinh Tồn); and China on Hughes Reef (Chinese: Dongmen Jiao; Vietnamese: Đá Tư Nghĩa; Philippines: McKennan Reef) and Johnson Reef (Chinese: Chiguo Jiao; Vietnamese: Đá Gạc Ma; Philippines: Mabini Reef). According to Gregory Poling at the Asia-Maritime Transparency Initiative, China is using Whitsun Reef as “a parking lot—their preferred anchorage to keep an eye on the larger piece of real estate called Union Banks.”
The Philippine National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea confirmed reports that beginning on March 7, approximately 220 Chinese vessels—described by China as fishing vessels and by other observers as a Chinese maritime militia fleet—were gathered at the boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef. While the number fluctuated slightly throughout March, by March 29 only 44 Chinese vessels remained at Whitsun Reef.
Though China claims that the hundreds of vessels were simply seeking shelter from storms, the Philippines’s task force noted that “[d]espite clear weather at the time, the Chinese vessels massed at the reef showed no actual fishing activities and had their full white lights turned on during night time,” lending credence to the analysis that the vessels’ real purpose is to “reinforce [China’s artificial islands and South China Sea claims] by swarming the disputed waters with vessels, effectively defying the other countries to expel them.”
This strategy appears to be the latest response to the Philippines’s victory in the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration (brought by the Philippines against China’s activities in the South China Sea). In this arbitration, a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitral tribunal rejected China’s “nine-dash line” claim to sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea. Instead, the tribunal ruled that “to the extent China had historic rights to resources in the waters of the South China Sea, such rights were extinguished to the extent they were incompatible with the exclusive economic zones provided for in the [UNCLOS] Convention.” Thus, China is now relying on a pure might-makes-right strategy to pressure Southeast Asian states to accept its otherwise-rejected claims in the Spratlys.
Delfin Lorenzana, Philippine Secretary of National Defense, announced on April 3 that 44 Chinese vessels remained in the vicinity of Whitsun Reef. The secretary’s terse statement underscored the tension between the Philippines and China: “Umalis na kayo diyan,” he said—“Get out of there.” The defense secretary’s statement comes on top of diplomatic protests from the Philippine government to the Chinese ambassador on March 21. On Twitter, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. analogized the protests to artillery shelling: “I got the coordinates [from the military], so to speak. And relayed to my legal artillery, “Fire at will.” Shell should be flying at first light.” In addition, on March 25, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte expressed his concern to the Chinese ambassador about the Chinese fleet at Whitsun Reef—an unusual display of concern from the usually pro-Beijing Philippine president.
In addition to the legal and diplomatic protests, the Philippines also engaged its military assets in response to the Chinese fleet. Each day over the course of the Chinese incursion, the Philippine military has sent navy warships and fighter aircraft to monitor the Chinese fleet at Whitsun Reef. Lorenzana reiterated in a March 28 statement that the Philippines is “ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines.”
Vietnam, which also claims Whitsun Reef, followed Manila’s lead and launched its own diplomatic protest, demanding “that China cease its violations” of UNCLOS and Vietnamese sovereignty. Vietnam also sent a Vietnamese Coast Guard vessel to the vicinity. The United States, meanwhile, firmly backed its ally, the Philippines. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted on March 28: “The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC’s maritime militia amassing at WhitsunReef [sic]. We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order.” U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held a call with Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon in which Sullivan “underscored that the United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order, and reaffirmed the applicability of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty in the South China Sea.” The tensions at Whitsun Reef come just days after the heated first meeting among Blinken, Sullivan and Chinese chief diplomat Yang Jiechi, during which the U.S. side also emphasized the “rules-based order that maintains global stability.” Not surprisingly, the Chinese Embassy in Manila demanded the United States stay out of its dispute with the Philippines, accusing the United States of “[f]anning flames and provoking confrontation in the region” and stating that “China and the Philippines are sovereign and independent countries” with the “will, wisdom and ability to properly handle relevant issues through bilateral channels.”
In an interview with The Diplomat, Poling compared the recent activities at Whitsun Reef to the situation in December 2018, when China deployed its maritime militia to occupy the waters around Thitu Island (Chinese: Zhongye Dao; Philippines: Pag-asa Island; Vietnamese: Đảo Thị Tứ). Since then, China has had a permanent maritime militia presence around Thitu Reef, though the Philippines still notionally controls Thitu Island. Poling suggests that China will take a similar approach in Union Banks, which is what is evident now at Whitsun Reef.
So far, this prediction seems accurate. Even as the Chinese maritime militia vessels dispersed from Whitsun Reef, they did not travel far: 155 relocated to nearby Kennan Reef (Chinese: Ximen Jiao; Vietnamese: Đá Ken Nan; Philippines: Chigua Reef), 45 shifted to Thitu Island, and another 50 traveled to Mischief (Chinese: Meiji Jiao; Vietnamese: Đá Vành Khăn; Philippines: Panganiban), Fiery Cross (Chinese: Yongshu Jiao; Vietnamese: Đá Chữ Thập; Philippines: Kagitingan) and Subi (Chinese: Zhubi Jiao; Vietnamese: Đá Su Bi; Philippines: Zamora) Reefs. Thus, even in beginning to defuse the Whitsun Reef tensions, China is still using the maritime militia to lay claim to disputed territory in the South China Sea. The Philippine National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea continued to “call on China to immediately withdraw these vessels flying its flag.” Or, as Lorenzana put it in his April 3 statement: “I am no fool. … These vessels should be on their way out.” He reiterated that sentiment on April 4, calling China’s disregard for the UNCLOS arbitral award “appalling” and warned that the “continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea.”
In his interview with The Diplomat, Poling suggests that China’s increased presence at Union Banks, by which it hopes to force out its Southeast Asian neighbors by “sheer weight of numbers,” is “geared probably toward the Vietnamese,” given that Vietnam—not the Philippines—occupies features in Union Banks. Vietnam has refrained from too much protest regarding China’s activities at Whitsun Reef because it prefers to “keep its powder dry for the big blow-ups over oil and gas exploration in particular.” That the Philippines responded so vociferously to the Chinese presence is more surprising and potentially signals a new approach from Manila. If this more vocal protest from Manila is “the beginning of a new strategy of publicly documenting Chinese militia activity …, trying to impose diplomatic costs, that would be a significant change,” says Poling. “The thing that has worked out best for Beijing over the last five years has been the quiescence of the Duterte government. That changing will fundamentally alter the discussion around the South China Sea.”
The CGA has stated that increased Chinese incursions are likely a response to developments in the United States-Taiwan relationship. The Trump administration dispatched high-level diplomatic envoys; removed restrictions on contacts with Taiwanese officials; and signed the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2020, which supports the transfer of “defense articles” to Taiwan and the inclusion of Taiwan in certain international organizations. The Biden administration has signaled an interest in continuing to strengthen relations with Taiwan. However, China’s recent incursions may also signal an increased likelihood of future military conflict between mainland China and Taiwan.
Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, warned during a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing in March that China may use military force against Taiwan within the next six years. This timeline is based on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2019 speech that stated reunification is part of China’s rejuvenation plan.
Some experts are also drawing comparisons between China’s interest in the Pratas Islands and Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Both areas are strategically located and remain relatively soft targets. The Pratas Islands provide access to the Bashi Channel, which Chinese nuclear submarines use to access the Pacific Ocean and which U.S. warships pass through en route from the Philippines to Taiwan. The Pratas Islands are also located within Hong Kong’s airspace, making them a comparatively soft target for China.