Philippine Navy vessel BRP Gregorio Del Pilar participates in the second iteration of a joint maritime cooperative activity between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the US Indo-Pacific Command in the West Philippine Sea.— PHOTO FROM AFP

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE Chinese military began a two-day patrol in the South China Sea on Wednesday in an apparent response to the joint drills of the Philippines and its treaty ally, the United States, in the same region.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Southern Theatre Command said it had sent its navy and air force to the waterway for routine patrols to monitor activities that “disrupt” the region.

Any military activities that “cause disturbances and create hot spots in the South China Sea are fully under control,” it said in a statement posted on the website of China’s defense ministry.

It said its troops remain on high alert at all times, “resolutely defending national sovereignty, security, and maritime rights and interests.”

The Chinese patrols, which were set to end on Thursday, Jan. 4, coincide with the joint drills of the Philippines and the United States, the second in two months in the same area as the treaty allies boost their partnerships amid an increasingly belligerent China. During their joint drills, the Philippine military sent three ships while the US Indo-Pacific Command deployed the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group, which is composed of several missile destroyer ships and aircraft.

“Sailing and operating together demonstrates our commitment to improving our interoperability and information sharing with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, to enhance our ability to coordinate on maritime domain awareness and other shared security interests,” Rear Adm. Carlos Sardiello, commander of the Carrier Strike Group 1, said in a release.

The two allies conducted passing exercises, joint patrols, cross-deck exercises, and fixed-wing flight operations, among other activities at sea.

Justin Keith Baquisal, an analyst at Future Trends, ASEAN Matters, Current Affairs, Technology and Security (FACTS), said China was likely alarmed by the Washington’s deployment of an aircraft carrier.

“[It’s] definitely a very strong statement from the US which China felt it needed to respond to,” he said in a Twitter message.

He said China is “signaling displeasure” at the return of the Philippines’ joint patrols with the US, which had been discontinued in recent years and are being revived under the Marcos administration. 

The last joint sail between the two countries in the South China Sea under Maritime Cooperative Activity occurred in late November.

Reports showed that China’s Type 052D guided-missile destroyer and Type 054A frigate shadowed the Philippine and American navies on Wednesday, triggering one of the Philippine patrol vessels to issue warnings that the Chinese side did not respond to.

China’s two-day patrol was “a clear show of force by China at a time when efforts are being made among like-minded democracies to keep the seas safe, open, and free,” Don Mclain Gill, who teaches international relations at De La Salle University, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

He noted that China also conducted naval exercises close to Taiwan in the past to demonstrate its power projection amid its tension with the self-ruled island, which is being supported by the US in its push for autonomy.

Victor Andres C. Manhit, president of think tank Stratbase ADR Institute, said the Philippines is expected to continue sailing within its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea with the help of its allies.

“As it demonstrated last year, the Philippines has not deterred against acts of aggression in the West Philippine Sea, and it will continue to defend its territory,” he said via Messenger chat.

“This may be in the form of assertive transparency through the regular reporting of developments in the area and, in the form of multilateral cooperation with like-minded states.”

Despite the tensions, Mr. Baquisal said shipping lanes in the South China Sea will likely remain stable.

“Both Philippine and Chinese actions are largely routine operations consistent with the defense postures they have vowed to maintain to defend their national interests,” he said.

“Neither the Philippines nor China have systematically threatened shipping lanes in the South China Sea, so the patrols don’t really have an immediate-term impact on businesses and their cargo passing through the waterway, where vital global trade passes through,” he added.