The Chinese military is escalating its slow-motion invasion of the South China Sea, including large parts of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. And that’s having some unintended consequences for the Chinese Communist Party.
Once somewhat isolated and militarily weak, the Republic of the Philippines lately has been strengthening its ties with its democratic neighbors and allies – in particular the United States, Australia and Japan. Manila is also pouring billions of dollars into a sweeping transformation and expansion of its depleted navy.
This is good news for all free people. Especially the free people of the growing number of Asia-Pacific countries that have come under siege by China’s powerful, and shadowy, maritime militia.
Off and on all this year, Chinese and Philippine coast guard crews have clashed in the waters around the Second Thomas Shoal, a reef formation that lies 140 miles from the westernmost island of The Philippines.
The shoal is within Manila’s economic zone under international law, but Beijing has also laid claim to the fishery and other resources surrounding the reef. In 1999 the Philippines sought to cement its ownership of the shoal by deliberately grounding an old naval transport ship on it, and converting that ship into a rusty, vermin-infested base for some very brave Philippine marines.
The Philippine navy’s regular supply runs to the shoal, escorted by the Philippine coast guard, have drawn the ire of the Chinese coast guard and the Chinese maritime militia, which sails in radio-equipped fishing boats and swarms disputed shoals as a prelude to a full military takeover by Chinese forces.
The maritime clashes around the Second Thomas Shoal reached a violent crescendo in October, when a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed a Philippine supply ship and the coast guard vessel escorting it.
The escalating violence isn’t going unmet. The Philippine navy, currently the smallest and weakest of the region’s leading navies, is about to get a lot bigger – and a lot more assertive. The Philippine fleet has begun joint patrols with the US fleet and plans for joint patrols with the Australian fleet in the near future.
To lend heft to these patrols, the Philippine navy is buying a lot of new ships, fast. Today, the navy has just nine large vessels capable of armed patrols. But unless something goes terribly wrong, it should have 18 large armed vessels as early as 2028.
Manila has Seoul to thank for this breakneck expansion. Starting in 2015, Manila began increasing defense spending year on year. By 2022, annual spending had doubled to $6 billion. The plan is for the defense budget to grow by another billion dollars by 2030. Major equipment items – ships, planes and missiles – accounted for nearly $6 billion, spread over five years starting in 2018.
Six billion US dollars might not seem like a lot of money to a navy like the US Navy, which spends $250 billion annually. But in the Philippines, a billion dollars buys a lot more than it does in the United States.
The Phillipines doesn’t build large warships, of course, so its navy must spend its dollars on an international arms market that’s still tethered to the American dollar. The trick, for Manila, has been to find an affordable builder for its new warships.
Buying a single US-made frigate would consume the Philippine navy’s entire annual budget. So Manila looked north, to South Korea and its burgeoning defense industrial base.
South Korean weapons are some of the best in the world – and they’re still affordable by global standards. The Philippine government has cut contracts with South Korean shipbuilders for nine new warships. None costs more than $250 million.
The biggest and most capable of these new ships are a pair of corvettes, each displacing 3,200 tons and packing 24 anti-air and anti-ship missiles.
Of course, a pair of missile corvettes backed by 16 other vessels wouldn’t last long in a direct fight with the Chinese navy, which has hundreds of ships including aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines.
But the Philippine fleet wouldn’t fight alone. In aligning more closely with the Americans, Australians and Japanese, the Filipinos add their modest – but growing – naval power to a huge multinational force. One whose mere existence should serve as a warning to the Chinese fleet and its bosses in the Chinese Communist Party.
All along the western Pacific, China is pushing. More and more, other countries are pushing back.