One hundred and twenty miles off the coast of Palawan in the Philippines sits the Sierra Madre, a rusting World War II-era landing vessel that hosts a small contingent of Philippine marines and serves as the infrastructural backbone of an atoll called the Second Thomas Shoal.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague declared that the shoal belonged to the Philippines and that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to the bulk of the South China Sea.
Beijing subsequently moved aggressively to underscore its public rejection of the court’s ruling, ramping up construction on numerous man-made islands with military facilities to buttress its assertion of control over almost all the South China Sea.
China’s key tool in all of this has been its huge coast guard – the largest such force in the world.
China Coast Guard ships have rammed, attacked with water cannons, or otherwise forcefully confronted Philippine vessels seeking to resupply or repair the Sierra Madre, and so keep it from breaking up in heavy weather and rough seas – a development that would severely undermine Manila’s continuing hold on the Second Thomas Shoal.
This desperate Filipino race against time has attracted the keen attention of the United States, whose increasingly close ties to Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Philippines new pro-American leader, have included plans for an expansion of American access to military bases on the Philippine mainland.
As President Biden declared on October 26, “The US defense commitment to the Philippines is ironclad. Any attack on Filipino aircraft, vessels, or armed forces” would automatically trigger Washington’s mutual defense treaty with Manila.
But Chinese behavior contains a deeper threat.
As the Philippine case illustrates, Beijing has long used its massive coast guard as a force to project power, not only in the South China Sea but elsewhere, ignoring international norms, creating facts on the ground (or the sea,) pushing the envelope while daring others to push back.
And some analysts believe that China could soon start to deploy the coast guard to ratchet up the pressure on Taiwan, the democratic island that Beijing has vowed to bring under its control, by persuasion if possible, and force if necessary.
This is especially true with the forthcoming January 13 presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan.
If the island’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which views Taiwan as a de facto sovereign nation and not part of China, should for the third consecutive time win the island’s presidential poll – it enjoys a small lead in public opinion surveys – the odds of a tough Chinese response will increase significantly.
And even if the more China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) pulls out an upset and prevails on January 13, it is highly unlikely to meet Chinese expectations for rapid movement towards eventual unification with the mainland – heightening the chances for further Chinese muscle-flexing.
This kind of pressure would create an extraordinarily difficult challenge for Taiwan and the US Navy, especially since the coast guard now has the backing of a Chinese law allowing it to use lethal force in waters which China claims.
“If one day Chinese coast guard ships appear around Taiwan – and they can range up to 10,000 tons – what do the US or Taiwan do?” asks former Taiwan Defense Minister Andrew Yang. “They are coast guard, not navy. They aren’t firing a shot. Do the US or Taiwan fire first?”
The coast guard also makes it easier for the Chinese Communist Party to deploy other tools of coercion it has so far not chosen to use, including moves that could directly threaten foreign companies doing business in Taiwan.
Such steps might include insisting that foreign vessels sailing to the island first undergo customs inspections in nearby Chinese ports or demanding that foreign air carriers serving Taiwanese airports first file flight plans with Chinese authorities.
The possibility that Chinese vessels might at some point inspect foreign commercial ships on the high seas to underscore its Taiwan claims could well lead to international insurers linking maritime insurance rates to compliance with evolving Chinese requirements, creating additional legal, political, and financial pressures on foreign companies doing business in Taiwan — all the while steadily undermining Taiwan’s effort to retain political separation from China.
Beijing has already been conducting almost daily air and naval operations in Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. In September, a record 103 sorties were staged in a single day.
More recent incursions have included Chinese aircraft circumnavigating Taiwan, as well as increasingly crossing an informal Taiwan Strait “median line” designed to keep the two sides apart and so reduce the danger of an accidental clash.
Beijing has also challenged US ships in the strait, including an incident in June in which a People’s Liberation Army warship cut across the bow and came within 150 yards of a US guided-missile destroyer as it was transiting the strait with a Canadian frigate. In September, China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, conducted operations south and then north of Taiwan.
These so-called “gray zone activities” have so far succeeded in giving China the upper hand in the South China Sea. The situation may soon reach a point where Taiwan’s friends and allies will have to confront the challenge of whether they will prove equally effective in and around the democratic island.