Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Much Ado about Thitu

Nathan Swire
Tuesday, March 5, 2019, 4:12 PM

From December through at least February, China deployed a fleet of vessels to the area around Thitu Island (called Pag-Asa Island in the Philippines), the largest of nine features claimed by the Philippines in the Spratly Islands, according to satellite analysis conducted by the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) and reports from local fishing vessels.

Disposition of Chinese ships off Thitu Island on December 20, 2018. Source: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

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From December through at least February, China deployed a fleet of vessels to the area around Thitu Island (called Pag-Asa Island in the Philippines), the largest of nine features claimed by the Philippines in the Spratly Islands, according to satellite analysis conducted by the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) and reports from local fishing vessels.

China’s deployment may be a response to new Philippine construction on Thitu Island. On Dec. 20, 2018, the Philippine government announced that a new beaching ramp is under construction and that the government plans to repair the military barracks and runway on the island.

Analysis by AMTI indicates that the Chinese fleet deployed to the area consists of People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) ships, Coast Guard ships, and dozens of fishing vessels showing the characteristic signs of China’s maritime militia. These deployments began in mid-December and reached a high of 95 vessels in December, before dropping in January. A smaller Chinese fleet had previously deployed to the area around Thitu Island when the Philippine government first announced the plans to upgrade the facilities there in August 2017.

According to Roberto del Mundo—mayor of the town of Kalayaan, which administers Thitu Island—the Chinese vessels were driving Philippine fishermen away from a sandbar located off the coast of the island during January and February. Del Mundo said China’s actions did not constitute “harassment” but did say the Chinese vessels were stopping access to the sandbars, which the Philippines considers its own fishing grounds. The Philippine government previously halted construction on one of the sandbars between Thitu Island and Chinese-controlled Subi Reef 12 miles away, due to an agreement between the two countries to refrain from claiming features in the region. It is unclear if the Chinese vessels still remain in the area.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana defended the Philippines’s decision to invest in facilities on the island, after the AMTI published its report. Lorenzana told reporters that the construction was in full accordance with international law, and that “we expect other countries to respect Philippine sovereignty and to conduct themselves in a civilized manner befitting members of the global community.”

The Philippine government has declined from confirming these reports, though a spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte stated that China’s actions would be “not correct” if they are truly blocking Philippine fishing vessels from accessing the sandbar.

In Other News

In the Philippines…

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on March 1, during a joint news conference in the Philippines with Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin, that “any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty.”

The mutual defense treaty states that both countries would come to each other’s defense in the event of an armed attack.

Pompeo’s statement signals a higher level of commitment by the United States, as it has never before assured the Philippines that it would invoke the MDF in response to an attack on a Philippine feature in the South China Sea. The Philippines has long sought this guarantee by the United States, but in 2018, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis declined to make the same guarantee when asked by a reporter.

Pompeo’s visit comes as skeptics in the Philippine government are considering reviewing the mutual defense treaty, which was signed in 1951, partially over concerns that its language is too vague. Some members of the government have also called for increased ties with China, even at the expense of the United States.

Locsin stated at the conference that his government’s response to the new commitment would require “further thought,” but added, “we are very assured, we’re very confident, that the United States has—in the words of Trump to our president: We have your back.”

However, on March 5, Philippine Defense Secretary Lorenzana said that the Philippines will continue its review of the treaty over concerns that the Philippines itself could be dragged into a conflict between the U.S. and China. In a statement, Lorenzana said, “[I]t is not the lack of reassurance that worries me. It is being involved in a war that we do not seek and do not want.”

Under the Sea …

Australia, Singapore and India have all made significant strides in the long-term development of their submarine fleets in the last month.

On Feb. 11, Australia signed its largest-ever defense procurement—a $35 billion deal with France to build 12 diesel-powered attack submarines based on the French defense contractor Naval Group’s Barracuda-class design at a new shipyard in South Australia. The first submarines are expected to begin operational testing in 2032.

Naval Group, in partnership with Australia, is also planning on establishing a new naval and maritime research lab in Adelaide called the OzCean Technocampus.

On Feb. 18, the first of four submarines destined for Singapore launched from its shipyards in Kiel, Germany. This state-of-the-art Type 212 submarine, titled the Invincible, will replace Singapore’s Challenger-class submarines purchased from Sweden in the 1990s, though it does have several other submarines purchased in the past 10 years.

Singapore’s defense minister Ng Eng Hen emphasized the new submarine’s ability to combat smuggling and piracy, but it will also give the small nation increased control over the narrow Straits of Malacca. The new submarine class boasts increased maneuverability, intelligence-gathering sensors and sophisticated automation systems, as well as a heavier weapons load.

India plans to sign a $3 billion deal this week with Russia to lease an Akula-class nuclear attack submarine, which will be titled the Chakra III. This is the third submarine of this class that India has leased from Russia, and the Chakra II is currently in service in the Indian fleet. The new submarine is expected to be ready in 2025, and India plans to begin preparing it for service, including installing Indian-developed technology, this year.

News and Analysis

In the Global Times, Jiang Yanchian and Hu Bo present China’s position that AMTI has misinterpreted the satellite imagery of Thitu Island, arguing that China’s vessels in the region are unrelated to the Philippine construction. The authors argue that the Chinese vessels were not positioned to block Philippine supply routes, and that the presence of the ships can be explained by the increased demand for seafood surrounding the Chinese New Year.

In Forbes, Panos Mourdoukoutas discusses recent examples of pushback against China by Vietnam and Indonesia, arguing that standing up to China does not lead to war. Mourdoukoutas notes the decision by Indonesia to draw a “red line” establishing exclusive fishing zones in the South China Sea and Vietnam’s push for a pact to ban China’s aggressive activities in the Sea, as well as the calm reaction by the financial markets in response to these actions. Mourdoukoutas also calls out the Philippine government for being too deferential to China out of fear of retaliation.

And at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Ramesh Thakur analyzes India’s and China’s projects to develop their nuclear submarine forces, concluding that China’s political system will allow its leaders to take a longer-term view of its nuclear submarine policy, and that China will ultimately end up with the more effective undersea fleet.

Nathan Swire is a recent graduate of Harvard Law School. Prior to law school he served for four years as an Infantry Officer in the U.S. Army, primarily with the Second Cavalry Regiment based out of Vilseck, Germany. He holds a bachelor's degree in Government from Dartmouth College.

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