Clear and Present Danger: the Chinese incursion into Spratly Islands

Who occupies the Spratly Islands, South China Sea? (click image to enlarge)

The Chinese incursion into Philippine territory in the Spratly islands, at the edge of the South China Sea is a clear and present danger. The government has already signaled that it intends to take the diplomatic route. This is well and good, mostly because we will be negotiating in a position of weakness. Let’s face it, the men and women of the Armed Forces of the Philippines have big hearts but a squadron of People’s Liberation Army Navy forces is all it would take to get what little claim we have. So the government would have to take steps beyond diplomacy.

Not even a squadron really, just Chinese people setting up shop, and claiming territory because, well, they can.

Journalists have a word for a nation that losses control of its territory. They call it, “a failed state”. It is in so many words the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions. It is the inability to provide public services. It is an inability to interact with the International community.

The Spratly Island is over 425,000 square kilometer of sea, and only about 4 square kilometer of land. It consists of over 30,000 islands and reefs. The Philippines says it holds seven islands and three reefs: Flat Island, Lankiam Cay, Loaita Island, Nanshan Island, Northeast Cay, Thitu Island, West York Island, Commodore Reef, Irving Reef, and Second Thomas Reef. The Philippines maintains its call that Reed Bank belongs to it. The People’s Republic of China says it holds Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef/Northwest Investigator Reef, Gaven Refs, Hughes Reef, Johnson South Reef, Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, First Thomas Reef, Whitson Reef.

A nation said to own territory is said to occupy it. The Philippines has had years to occupy territory, and to keep patrolling territory. The obvious case is that we haven’t. Whether this national security lapse was simply because the previous governments exercised a lapse in judgement, or whether or not it sought shelter in pieces of paper like the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is beside the point. Pieces of paper don’t hold land, and they certainly don’t hold territory.

No one is going to war with China over these islands. The Chinese of course will do a lot of saber-rattling. The Chinese on the one hand will weasel their way in as much as possible getting territory as much as it can. The proof that they exercise control will be because they occupy it. The Philippines has a mutual defense treaty with the United States, but surely Washington and the other claimants will prefer a diplomatic solution.

The solution is obvious. The Philippines would need to step up setting up structures, putting ships and patrolling the area. It needs to have fishing boats, and send expeditions. It needs to show that we are holding these territories. In short, the nation will need to show that it has an active presence at the Spratly Islands, and that we are also willing to hold territory as we talk diplomacy.

The Chinese are known for not backing down against anything. This is the People’s Republic of China flexing its muscles, because it can, and because in the grand scheme of things, just maybe it can take a little something from little kid next door. There is no saving face.

The argument against it of course is: why spend on guns and troops when we can’t even feed and send our kids to school. And the short answer is: we can not be a nation state if we can not hold on to the territory we say we control. The alternative is to be a step closer to a failed state. We might as well negotiate membership into the People’s Republic of China or some other government.

What would it take to defend, occupy and use the Spratly Islands? Real ships, real planes, real scientists and fishermen and simply, a nation active on those islands. Is this going to be an arms race?


Either that or the Philippines simply withdraws all claims in the region. That doesn’t make us a Nation State.

Map credit: Central Intelligence Agency (2008), public domain.

Cocoy Dayao

Cocoy is the Chief Technology Officer of Lab Rats Technica, a Digital Consulting company that specialises in DevOps, iOS, and Web Apps, E-Commerce sites, Cybersecurity and Social Media consulting. He is a technology enthusiast, political junkie and social observer who enjoys a good cup of coffee, comic books, and tweets as @cocoy on twitter.

Cocoy is also the Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of the ProPinoy Project.

Cocoy considers himself to be Liberal.

  • Thai anton

    Penge defense, Pahinge Naman ng AID para sa defense ko, somebody please, Everytime there is a disaster,or calamity ang bukang bibig ng gobyerno ay We will ask for AID , tama Lang na ang gamiting para sa PIlipinas ay PH , it sounds like PAHINGE in short PH. Pahinge Naman ng aid oh, Pahinge..PH Pahinge PH.

  • Thai anton

    Arms race, what arms race ? China have atomic,hydrogen bombs,nuclear subs ,largest navy in Asia,, RP will defend itself with M16 abd indigenous Banca ,and ask USA for to defend us. Who is the biggest trading partner of USA ? CHINA !! Who is the biggest owner / buyer of American treasuries ? CHINA.

    • KG


  • Thai anton

    We are the only nation in Asia that DON’T want to spend money for our own defense, preferring to ask USA to fight a war for us , if RP don’t show no sign of attempting to defend itself,how dare you ask USA to fight a war for you. Ukay Ukay defense, hand me down battleships and helicopters, I can imagine the outcome ,but I think China will only grab Palawan,and turn it to a Chinese province and leave the rest of RP fight among themselves.

    • UP nn grad

      China invading Palawang and making it a province???

      If they do that, do you not think they will have a rebellion on their hands with Kris Aquino’s nephews, students of deLa Salle, UP-Los Banos, UST and FEU; relatives from the provinces of Ochoa-Lacierda-Carandang and representation from the deQuiros and Randy David clans, the Tordesillas, the Trillanes, Lagman, Tabako-Ramos and Marcos clans all wanting to join Mindanawans in expelling the invading soldiers.

    • KG

      I agree we need more defense spending.
      The zero based budgeting promise of Pnoy will mean thorough justification from every agency in the bureaucracy.

      The AFP issues will make it hard for the AFP to justify its budget. if in incremental budgeting you only need to justify the additional expenditures in zero based wachamacolit you need to justify everything.
      The AFP has a ticking time bomb in its pension funds the amount for pension given to retired personnel is almost equal to the amount for salaries given to the active personnel and until now no solution has been offered.
      Let us also consider the anti militarist sentiments of some group of people who will question any increase in military spending.

      I agree about the ukay ukay defense. Until the time that it will be cost effective to build our own equipment,vessels,aircrafts then we no longer have to rely on hand me downs.
      Until then, our shipyards will build ships but the ships will not be for the Philippines.
      I reiterate the need to pass the amendment for the afp modernization law and
      I reiterate the passage of the amendments for the national defense law and the passage of a national security law.

  • KG

    “How many destroyers or frigates do we need to build? How much will this cost? Do they have to be missile guided destroyers or WWII style cannon destroyers lang?”

    people have been clamoring for ships to be built in Philippine shipyards, the problem is most of our shipyards are committed to finish building ships for export.. we still have a few shipyards left for ship building.

    major issues;
    The largest vessel to arrive anytime would be the hamilton cutter. We will get from the malampaya funds to pay for them and that would already be controversial because of the many issues involved regarding the malampaya funds. Our modernization law has already lapsed and we could not get any funds until our law makers pass an amendment to the afp modernization law.

    • KG

      One more issue the chair of the house committee on defense wants the amendment afp modernization law to concentrate on internal security (fighting insurgency,etc) rather than granting the wishes (wishlist) of the AFP which is for external defense.

      • UP nn grad

        adding naval patrol vessels will meet internal- and external- needs. Naval patrol (like the ones the TamilTigers/Sri Lanka government used against each other) useful against Abu bandits, MILF separatists and drug smugglers just as they are useful against China naval vessels who want to put the bejeseesus fear into Valte, Mislang, –Presi Noynoy’s Malacanang lawyers– and the people of Palawan.

        • KG

          I agree we really lack patrol boats even to protect our marine biodiversity.

          • KG

            The DOTC sec is in charge with our coast guard maybe the new DOTC secretary can ask for funds for the coast guard. for additional patrol crafts.

    • Cocoy

      Look KG, any sort of “Military” build up in the short term is at best impossible to do. For one thing, you don’t build an army over night. In our case it gets harder because we don’t have funds for it.

      Patrol boats, and more structures on reefs and islands we say we occupy i think is doable in the short term. Putting up troops in the areas we say we control but don’t have a presence would be a good thing.

      I also think in the short term we could have some sort of cyber warfare division that can retaliate in some sort of way.

      For the long term re-armament of the Navy and the marine corps., i think that will take years. Someone must have drawn up plans for this sort of thing. And it would be best to break the glass and start spending for it.

      • KG

        Cocoy, well said.

        • KG

          Unfortunately in terms of cyberwarfare The Chinese will dominate. (thousands of hackers)

          But it is a good idea to have a cyberwarfare division.

          We host a number of network security companies here like trend micro,symantec,etc .
          The AFP or the government can partner with them.

          • Cocoy

            We have a lot of good people. I think spending on cyber defense and offense goes beyond war, but with police action so win-win, imho.

          • KG

            yup, I agree.

  • Bert

    My take on this is that we should patrol all areas we are claiming in the Spratly with whatever boat and plane we have however dilapidated they are just to show to the world that we are determined in our effort to hold and defend our own territories.

    Of course the Chinese military can easily sink any of our junk boats but that’s well and good because that’s what America is waiting to happen.

    Then the US Pacific Fleet with a number of aircraft carriers will have valid reasons to show off their latest hard wares to the Asian markets.

    And the Subic Naval Base and Cubi Point Airbase will come alive again, :).

    • UP nn grad

      In the interest of preventing blood of Pinoy soldiers and civilians to be put at risk, I pass this on to Mainland China (because Vietnam already knows about this):

      In 1975, a party was held for the Philippine commanding officer at Parola. Philippine forces guarding Pugad Island attended the party and upon their return, found that the South Vietnamese, who were then Allies, had occupied the island in their absence.

      Beer and Tanduay plus a lauriat with Sweet-and-sour pork and roast duck — that may be sufficient.

      An ally with dark intentions… did someone just make a blog-entry about a wise enemy can be better than a friend with dark intentions?

      • Bert

        Oh, not at all, UP n. To be perfectly honest, I will take anytime a friend with dark intentions to a wise enemy with dark intentions. But that is not what I believed.

        I think that America’s intentions is not dark but more for its self-interests which is also good for the self-interest of all democratic countries of all Asia including the Philippines.

        This someone is a friend of the United States of America and a firm believer in its democratic ideas.

      • UP nn grad

        If Asec Torres had done a Vietnam — invited the security guards and the office workers for a laureat; and then her business partners sneak in to implement the office invasion…. that may have wiser — doing a Vietnam on Pilipinas may be less disruptive after all. What are allies for who want to get richer faster… malas mo na lang kung dalhan ka ng media-media attention KKK.

        • UP nn grad

          now, an enemy you already know… even before they open their mouths and as soon as they get into the news, you just ask them to be humble before the President.

        • Bert

          Ay, UP n, you’re advocating a Raul Manglapus…to enjoy being rape while it is happening, in the interest of preventing bloodshed. And then next you’ll be advocating for the RH Bill which I agree, and then finally for abortion which is against the constitution.

          Not good.

          • UP nn grad

            actually, my recommendation was intended for the more powerful ( China, Vietnam ) — a big fiesta, not rape. Rape would be where Presi-Noynoy sells Philippine land to China and China hires, then abuses Filipino farmers — that would be rape, like what literally happens (case-by-case basis) in the Middle East to Pinas workers of both sex.

            And the warning to Presi-Noynoy about his friends is this — Presi-Noynoy does not seem to really know to that his KKK pursuing a natural thing — financial security —- may result in these BFF’s stepping past delicadeza-limits that bring embarassment to Perssi-Noynoy.

            Just think about this — Hongkong has concluded that Pilipinas was negligent over Quirino Granddstand… baka next, arrest warrants, kahiya-hiya naman kung hindi maka-pag shopping some of Persi-Noynoy’s BFF’s at baka ma-kalaboso doon because of the Quirino-grandstand massacre.

    • Cocoy

      Well there’s a thing there… not sure if the Mutual Defense Treaty applies to Spratly islands, but you know how these things are interpreted. It is what the Americans say it is. so *shrug*

  • We have a mayor there, right? Isn’t that enough to stake our claim on those islands? We also have oil exploratory rigs/boats in the territory already.

    • Cocoy

      i think not all of it, Karen. Like reef the chinese are claiming. We could have and should have some structure there. Just so we you know we mark the territory.

  • UP nn grad

    With a bureaucracy of PIll-nas government as base, establishing continuous presence in the area claimed by Pilipinas is not hard. Presi-Noynoy can order continuous patrol by three or four dory-sized boats (Carolina- or PacificCoast-dories or even mullet-style) manned by Pilipinas navy cadets will work (as long as they have long-range radio contact to La Union or Cavite; the home-base can ask Philippine Air Force presense on a case-by-case basis).

    • Cocoy

      Yep. I think this is something that can be done in the short term.

  • Proud Pinoy

    Let’s say that we do start to “occupy” more islands. How fast can we do this before China gets the lion’s share? How many destroyers or frigates do we need to build? How much will this cost? Do they have to be missile guided destroyers or WWII style cannon destroyers lang?

    Where will we get the money to this buildup? More taxes? Cut spending in education or social services?

    • Cocoy

      Money would most likely come from money we borrow. And yes, I think that we should do that. If we could arrange for military assistance from our allies like the United States or someone else, that would be great. It would most likely be an aid program of some sort.