FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Many years ago, I listened admiringly as Air Force officers boasted about using Chinese buoys for target practice. They were, of course, using our unimpressive propeller-driven planes to do that.

It is not clear if they managed to sink any of them. At any rate, their largely symbolic efforts did not provoke a major diplomatic incident.

Lately, our Coast Guard installed ten rather large steel buoys. It was never made clear if this was to aid in navigational safety or to mark out our boundaries.

Now, it seems, it is our turn to worry about the Chinese ships sinking or stealing our buoys. Through the last week, there have been reports some of the buoys we installed were missing. The Coast Guard, a few days ago, reported the buoys to be intact.

Perhaps the Chinese navy is a bit distracted. Over the past few weeks, the US Navy has been running its warships up and down the Taiwan Strait.

Last week, the US complained that one of its surveillance planes flying in international airspace was buzzed by a Chinese fighter plane. They described the incident as reckless and unprofessional.

The other day, a Chinese warship maneuvered close to an American destroyer in the Strait. That, too, was denounced by the Americans for recklessness.

Such incidents are likely to escalate. US allies have announced plans to sail their warships through the Taiwan Strait. Such exercises underscore the area as an open international passageway. Beijing, given its claims that Taiwan is nothing more than a renegade province, seems to treat the Taiwan Strait as internal waters.

The US and its allies are continuing with what they call their “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea. Such operations aim to debunk China’s sovereignty claims over the area.

A few days ago, the Philippine Coast Guard led in tripartite exercises off Zambales with Coast Guard vessels from the US and Japan. Officially, the exercises were meant to improve the interoperability of the vessels. Diplomatically, it appears to inaugurate a new era where Japan plays a more pronounced role in a region where tensions are running high.

Add to all these the recent expansion in the number of sites the Philippines is making available for the forward deployment of US military hardware. That expansion, in the framework of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), underscores the new direction of our foreign policy towards closer alliance with the US.

In the light of the new dynamics in international politics owing to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Japan invited the NATO to open a coordination office in Tokyo. The Japanese government is signaling a willingness to participate in regional defense initiatives in the face of China’s rapidly growing military prowess.

Washington quietly but effectively countered Beijing’s diplomatic initiative seeking to establish military bases in some of the small Pacific island states. That initiative, which would have altered the geopolitical configuration dramatically, is now dead in the water. China is not about to have military bases east of the Philippines.

While most countries maintain a One-China policy, an increasing number of governments have also conveyed their view that Taiwan is a self-determining entity. This is in reaction to Beijing’s intimidation of the small island nation, including surrounding Taiwan with its naval forces and conducting mock missile assaults.

All these developments are a reaction of Beijing’s forceful moves in the Taiwan Straits area and the South China Sea. China has been outpacing all other countries in military spending and modernization.

The Philippine Coast Guard’s decision to put in buoys is part of this broad regional effort to counter Beijing’s more aggressive posture in the region. Over the past year, there has been an unprecedented number of incidents featuring China Coast Guard vessels harassing Philippine ships, including those meant to resupply our troops in the outlying islands.

These buoys might appear to be small efforts compared to the games played by the big boys, but they do draw a literal line in the sand. They are fixed reminders of our territorial boundaries and a frontal challenge to China’s claims. Should China’s ships try to sink them, this would constitute an affront to our sovereignty.

Beijing, to be sure, is not happy about all the recent developments that combine into a huge international effort to hem in China’s force projection in the region. The growing American military presence in the western Pacific, including warships positioned ostensibly to intercept hostile North Korean missiles, does serve as counterweight to whatever aggressive designs Beijing might have against Taiwan.

Beijing has been articulating its unhappiness the past few days. China’s foreign ministry has described the western naval patrols and the expanded EDCA as destabilizing moves. Last week, Beijing bluntly rejected an offer by the US Defense Secretary for a bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart.

Beijing is seething from a long string of diplomatic setbacks – and she is making no secret of it. Expect more close encounters between pro-western naval and air patrols and Chinese forces in areas Beijing treats as its exclusive sphere.

Unfortunately for Beijing, no other country has endorsed her undiplomatic rants and supported her claims. Not even her closest ally, Russia, has bothered to echo Beijing’s complaints.

The strengthening of military partnerships in the western Pacific is, after all, a reaction to the more aggressive posture China has adopted in this part of the world. We would be negligent if we do not implement countermeasures.

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