03/27/2021, 11.35
PHILIPPINES-CHINA
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South China Sea: Manila ready to scramble navy after Beijing

According to the Filipinos, 200 Chinese maritime militia boats are stationed near Whitsun Reef, a disputed coral reef. The impact of the crisis on the 2022 presidential elections in the Philippines. Washington supports Manila. Biden wants to build a united front to contain China’s expansionism.

Manila (AsiaNews) - The Philippines is ready to scramble naval units to counter the new Chinese incursions in the disputed areas of the South China Sea.

Filipino Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana reports about 200 boats of the Beijing Maritime Militia are stationed near Whitsun Reef, a coral reef part of the Spratly Islands that Manila considers under its sovereignty.

Lorenzana says China wants to militarize the area and has ordered Chinese boats to abandon the territory. Beijing has responded that these are simple fishing vessels that have found shelter from a storm. Chinese observers argue that the numbers filed by the Filipinos are inflated and that it would make no sense to send so many maritime militia ships to that side of the Spratly.

Along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia, and with the support of the United States, the Philippines is opposing China's territorial claims in the region. Manila's position is based on the ruling of The Hague International Court of Arbitration, which in 2016 defined Chinese claims on nearly 90% of the South China Sea as "baseless".

Beijing has occupied and militarized numerous coral atolls and sandy banks in the region. Chinese warships and coast guard ships, along with maritime militia vessels, frequently operate in waters claimed by other states.

Several independent analysts summarize that Beijing has sent the "swarm" of ships to Whitsun Reef to test the resolve of Manila and the US.

So far, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has avoided an open confrontation with the Chinese over the Spratlys. 2022 is an election year in the Philippines and although Duterte cannot stand for a new term, he wants to have his candidate elected. The growing pressures of the nationalist electorate could therefore push him to change his attitude towards China.

The Association of Southeast Asian Countries (ASEAN) tend not to take sides in the geopolitical confrontation between the United States and China. They need Beijing for their economic growth - hit hard by the pandemic - and at the same time Washington to limit the hegemonic claims of the Chinese.

On March 23, the Biden administration said it supported Filipino allies regarding the Chinese presence in Whitsun Reef. The US government accuses China of using the maritime militia to "intimidate, provoke and threaten other nations, undermining peace and security in the region".

For years Washington has been carrying out naval operations to assert freedom of navigation and airspace in the South China Sea. Beijing considers these initiatives an interference in its own affairs and an attempt to contain its rise as the top regional power. Biden wants to build a united front with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, especially with the countries of the QUAD (Japan, India and Australia) to counter the Chinese advance.

NATO is also calling for joint intervention by the democratic camp to stop China's aggressive policy all over the world. France has recently sent its military ships on missions to East Asia, including two passages in the South China Sea. Germany and Great Britain will do the same this year, with London saying it is ready to send one of its two new aircraft carriers.

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