Chinese presence in Julian Felipe Reef designed to pressure Duterte's stance on VFA, says expert

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 13) — The lingering presence of Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef, also known as Whitsun Reef, is designed to put pressure on President Rodrigo Duterte's stance on the Visiting Forces Agreement, a maritime expert warned on Tuesday.

"The arrival of Chinese maritime militia and fishing fleet in Whitsun Reef, in my opinion, is designed to put pressure on Duterte, who equivocates whether or not he will terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement," University of New South Wales Canberra emeritus professor Carl Thayer said during the online forum of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.

The South China Sea expert added that it is China's attempt to disrupt any possibility of getting the US alliance with the Philippines reinvigorated and to demonstrate that the US has no strategy that would alter the status quo.

Thayer also quoted from the United States' Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which noted that China has rapidly become more assertive and is the only competitor capable of mounting a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system. It called for the restoration of global leadership to ensure that the US, not China, sets the international agenda while working with allies and partners.

Duterte has previously suspended the abrogation of the PH-US Visiting Agreement, after initially moving to terminate the decades-old military deal in February 2020. He said he has not yet decided on the fate of the agreement, which compliments the Mutual Defense Treaty, another deal between the two countries which guarantees that they will both provide military aid to each other in case their metropolitan areas or their territories in the Pacific are attacked by a foreign force.

READ: Duterte undecided on fate of VFA 

"The Philippines' position to temporarily suspend the termination of the VFA presents opportunities to address mutual concerns and reinvigorate interoperable training opportunities as we seek a full reversal of the termination process of the Visiting Forces Agreement," Thayer said, citing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Force Posture.

Tensions continue to rise with the presence of Chinese maritime militia ships at the Julian Felipe Reef, which is well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The reef is part of Beijing's vast claims in the South China Sea, which includes areas Manila considers the West Philippine Sea.

Meanwhile, the Biden-led US administration has continued with its freedom of navigation operations, naval patrols and aerial reconnaissance to counter Chinese ships from the People's Liberation Army.

Thayer said he sees heightened tensions on the horizon amid the US actions and China's reactions and assertiveness.

"The military balance in the Indo-Pacific is becoming more unfavorable to the U.S., raising the risk that China will become emboldened to alter the status quo," he said, adding that regional states will come under increased pressure to take sides.

Last week, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana talked with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who reiterated Washington's commitment to "maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, rooted in international law, including the U.N Convention on the Law of the Sea."

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, also warned against China's potential takeover of Julian Felipe Reef in a repeat of its gradual construction of infrastructure on the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in 1994. Koh said Whitsun Reef is regarded as strategic because it is at the midpoint of two established outposts of China in the area, and is near a feature occupied by Vietnam.

"Whitsun Reef has value in terms of closing a gap to establish material island outpost in the Spratlys," he said in the forum. "If you talk about quick response in terms of intercepting any other foreign vessels within the vicinity of interest to China, having an outpost in Whitsun Reef will solve the problem."

The Department of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday said it has summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian over the prolonged presence of Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef. It also reiterated its demand for the immediate departure of other Chinese vessels in other maritime zones of the Philippines.