US think tank cites unusual Chinese moves near Palawan before war games

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By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

A US think tank on Sunday said it had spotted unusual movements of Chinese maritime militia vessels in the South China Sea, days before the start of military drills with the United States beyond the Philippines’ 12-nautical mile territorial waters.

Two Chinese maritime militia ships were spotted just 24 nautical miles from the Philippines’ Palawan coastline on April 21, said Raymond M. Powell, director of SeaLight, a maritime transparency project at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.

“It’s very hard to say why they chose to do this,” he said in an X message. “It may have been intended to send a message as the Balikatan exercise kicks off, or to probe the Philippines’ responses. It was a very unusual maneuver — nothing I’ve seen them do before.”

The two large Qiong Sansha Yu ships left China’s military base at Mischief Reef on Saturday, two days before the Philippines and the US hold their annual war games.

The Chinese ships had turned back in the direction of Mischief Reef after loitering outside the Philippines’ contiguous zone, Mr. Powell said.

China last week expressed “grave concern” over the deployment of an American medium-range missile system to the Philippines before the military drills, saying it increases “the risk of misjudgment and miscalculation.”

“China strongly opposes the US deploying medium-range ballistic missiles in the Asia-Pacific and strengthening forward deployment at China’s doorstep to seek unilateral military advantage,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jian said.

The joint military drills from April 22 to May 10 would be conducted in northern Luzon due its proximity to Taiwan, which China considers as a renegade province, Balikatan 2024 Executive Agent Colonel Mike Logico had said.

“The purpose of the armed forces — why we exist — is really to prepare for war,” he said on Thursday. “There’s no sugarcoating this. With or without China, let’s say for example in a parallel universe China did not exist, we would still be doing these exercises.”

On Saturday, National Security Council Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya said the Balikatan drills are not a preparation for war but a means to boost the Philippines’ deterrence capability.

“War is not on the table, let me just make that very clear,” he said. “War is not one of the instruments of national policy of the Philippines. Just because we have Balikatan doesn’t mean we’re going to war. The only way to preserve peace is to have a strong deterrence capability.”

Citizens’ movement P1NAS earlier said the deployment of the missile launchers on Philippine soil was “openly signaling hostile intent against China, giving the US the capability to launch attacks on China’s homeland from our own territory.”

China claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety, including areas that are within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The Philippines in February 2023 launched an assertive maritime transparency campaign that seeks to expose what it calls Chinese aggression within its EEZ in the South China Sea. It was launched with an initial focus on Second Thomas Shoal, where Manila grounded a World War II-ear ship in 1999 to assert its sovereignty.

Manila has accused Chinese coast guard vessels backed by maritime militia ships of dangerous maneuvers including firing water cannons to block Philippine resupply mission to BRP Sierra Madre, the grounded ship.

About 5,000 Filipino soldiers and 11,000 US servicemen will participate in this year’s Balikatan war games. For the first time, it will be held beyond the Philippines’ 12-nautical mile territorial waters, according to the Philippine military.

Fourteen countries will be observing the drills — Brunei, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

“There are so many countries that want to sign visiting forces agreements [with the Philippines],” Mr. Malaya said. “Even New Zealand, which is very far from us, wants to have military exchanges with us to help us strengthen our defenses.”

Bagong Alyansang Makabayan on Sunday said it would hold a protest rally near the presidential palace in Manila on Monday to condemn the war games.

“After two decades of Balikatan, it has done nothing but undermine the country’s sovereignty aside from disrupting the livelihoods of local communities,” Bayan Secretary-General Raymond Palatino said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

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