IntroductionThe Crouching Tiger or the Hidden Dragon: Chinese Influence Ops in the Philippines
Chinese influence operations in the Philippines are categorized into the overt “crouching tiger” approach, marked by more aggressive tactics, and the covert “hidden dragon” strategy, which operates subtly through media channels, radio, movies, and other means to shape narratives and influence the local culture.
The Philippines is located in Southeast Asia, bordered by the South China Sea(SCS) and the Pacific Ocean. With over 7,000 islands and a vast coastline, it has a significant land area and an extensive maritime territory known as the West Philippine Sea. The South China Sea is crucial for shipping routes, and fishing grounds, and contains diverse coral reef ecosystems. It also holds valuable oil and gas resources. The Spratly Islands in the southern part of the South China Sea have historically been contested due to their strategic location. In 2016, China and the Philippines were involved in an arbitration case concerning territorial disputes in this region.
The Republic of the Philippines formally established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on 09 June 1975. Prior to 1975, the Philippines’ close ties with the United States and US partners like Taiwan, along with the Philippine elite’s anti-communist politics, had resulted in an antagonistic stance toward Beijing. Filipino diplomatic presence in China is observed through its embassy in Beijing and consulates in Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Xiamen, Hong Kong, and Macau. China maintains its diplomatic presence in the Philippines through its embassy in Manila, with about 65 diplomats, the second highest number of foreign diplomatic corps in Manila after the United States. Bilateral trade grew by 17 percent per year between 2014 and 2019. These figures reveal the Philippines’ role as an active business partner and trading market for China, while Manila is concerted efforts to deal with belligerent Beijing.
There are five flashpoints between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea:
- Reed Bank: The area is rich in gas resources, and an arbitral tribunal ruled that it falls within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. However, Chinese Coast Guard vessels have previously prevented Philippine survey ships from conducting activities there.
- Ayungin Shoal: This low-tide feature also falls within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, according to the arbitral tribunal’s ruling. It is located near Mischief Reef, which China has illegally reclaimed and turned into a military base. China aims to seize Ayungin Shoal as it is strategically close to Mischief Reef.
- Sandy Cay: Under previous administrations, this high-tide sandbar was controlled by the Philippines but was seized by China during Duterte’s presidency. It lies near Pagasa Island and plays a role in determining territorial sea boundaries.
- San Felipe Reef or Whitsun Reef: Considered part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, this low-tide atoll is located near Mischief Reef and remains contested between both countries.
- Scarborough Shoal: Seized by China in 2012, this high-tide rock was declared a common fishing ground by an arbitral tribunal ruling. China plans to convert it into an air and naval base to establish control over the entire South China Sea region.
These flashpoints highlight ongoing disputes over territory and resources between China and the Philippines in their respective claims in the South China Sea.
The Crouching Tiger
As the title suggests, while crouching tiger refers to the aggressive muscle-flexing actions of Beijing in SCS/ WPS vis-à-vis Manila, hidden dragon refers to the malign Chinese influence activities in the Philippines.
Under President Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines has taken a much tougher stance on the dispute, with Manila accusing Chinese vessels of “aggressive actions” in SCS. In SCS, China claims all the islands, waters, and resources falling within its nine-dash line, equivalent to about 85.7 percent of the maritime area of the SCS.
Chinese Coast Guard vessels are authorized under China’s new Coast Guard law (in force since 1 Feb 2021) to fire their weapons on foreign vessels, and to forcibly dismantle structures, that encroach on China’s nine-dash line claim.
Therefore, structures erected by other states on islands claimed by China, like those in the Spratly Islands, such as the beached BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal, can be demolished by Chinese Coast Guard vessels under the said new Coast Guard law. The Filipino fishing community held a protest action on 24 February 2021 at Manila Baywalk to denounce China’s new coast guard law.
Ij-Reportika covered the issues of the Dubious Chinese Distant-Water Fishing Fleet (DWF) in the SCS/WPS in a comprehensive manner in “An Investigation into the Dubious Chinese Distant-Water Fishing Fleet (DWF)”. Do check out the complete report.
Recent History of Chinese Aggressive Maneuvers in SCS/ WPS
13 Apr 2021 — The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) summoned the Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian on 12 April 2021. The DFA expressed displeasure over the illegal lingering presence of Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef. Its Acting Undersecretary Elizabeth P. Buensuceso informed Ambassador Huang that Julian Felipe Reef lies within the EEZ of the Philippines. On the untoward statements of the Chinese embassy spokesperson on Defense Secretary Lorenzana, the Chinese side was reminded of proper decorum and manners in the conduct of their duties as guests of the Philippines.
21 April 2021 — the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) lodged two new diplomatic protests against the continued presence and activities of Chinese vessels in Philippine maritime zones. The DFA stated that these vessels infringe upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction. Over 160 Chinese fishing vessels and maritime militia vessels were observed in Philippine waters as of April 20th. Additionally, five Chinese Coast Guard vessels were deployed near Pag-asa Islands, Bajo de Masinloc, and Ayungin Shoal.
21 Nov 2022 – China accused of seizing rocket debris from Philippines navy in SCS dispute – The Chinese vessel twice blocked the Philippine naval boat before seizing the floating debris it was towing off Philippine-controlled Thitu Island, Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos said. He said no one was injured in the incident. Metal debris from Chinese rocket launches, some showing a part of what appears to be a Chinese flag, have been found in Philippine waters on at least three other occasions. Thitu Island, which Filipinos call Pag-asa, hosts a fishing community and Filipino forces and lies near Subi, one of seven disputed reefs in the offshore region that China has turned into missile-protected islands, including three with runways.
6 Feb 2023 – The Philippines has accused a Chinese coastguard ship of directing a “military-grade laser light” at one of its vessels, temporarily blinding a crew member and disrupting a mission in the SCS. The Chinese ship shone a green laser light twice toward the boat as it sought to deliberately block a resupply mission, the Philippine coastguard said. It also accused the Chinese vessel of making “dangerous maneuvers by approaching about 150 yards from the vessel’s starboard quarter”. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos has summoned the Chinese ambassador to express serious concern over the “increasing frequency and intensity of actions” by China against Philippine vessels.
23 Apr 2023 – A Chinese coastguard ship blocked a Philippine patrol vessel from entering the disputed Second Thomas Shoal. Journalists from several outlets had joined the Philippine patrol and filmed what the Associated Press described as a “near collision”, with the Chinese vessel moving suddenly to cut off the Philippine ship.
8 August 2023 – The Filipino Department of Foreign Affairs clarified that Ayungin Shoal/Second Thomas Shoal, as per the 2016 SCS Arbitration Award, is a low-tide elevation not subject to sovereignty claims. The Philippines National Security Council affirmed its commitment to not abandon Ayungin Shoal, a decision made in 1999 in response to China’s illegal occupation of Panganiban Reef in 1995. The Philippine station on Ayungin Shoal predates the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS (DOC) and is not a violation of the DOC. China Coast Guard’s actions on August 5, 2023, impeded the Philippines’ legitimate activities in its EEZ, violating UNCLOS, the 2016 SCS Arbitration Award, COLREGS, and the 2002 ASEAN-China DOC. This marked the first use of a water cannon by the CCG against a Philippine resupply mission since November 2021.
19 Aug 2023 – The Philippine government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, rejected the fishing moratorium imposed by China in SCS/ WPS. DFA spokesperson Tess Daza said the Philippines will not abide by China’s annual fishing ban. “We do not recognize China’s fishing ban,” she said. “This has been the subject of our diplomatic protests and we will continue to register our formal opposition to it.” It also stated that Manila is ready to apprehend illegal fishers who will venture into its territorial waters and EEZ after the end of China’s fishing ban in the SCS. The fishing ban imposed by China from May 1 to August 16 has been the subject of Manila’s diplomatic protests. China has imposed such fishing bans each year since 1999.
SCS Arbitral Award
In November 2021, Prof. Wolfrum, an international law expert, and judge appointed by the Philippines to the Arbitral Tribunal, delivered a virtual lecture on the landmark 2016 SCS Arbitral Award in favour of Manila. Initiated by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr., in collaboration with the German Embassy in Manila, the lecture series aimed to enhance awareness of the Arbitral Award and maritime issues.
The Philippines has filed 461 diplomatic protests against China since 2016. In 2022 itself, she filed at least 200 diplomatic protests over Chinese activity in SCS/ WPS, including at least 77 since Marcos took office in June 2022. He has vowed the country “will not lose one inch” of its territory. The Philippine Coast Guard has launched a strategy of publicizing aggressive actions by China in the disputed SCS/ WPS, which has countered Chinese propaganda and sparked international condemnation that has put Beijing under the spotlight. Former Filipino Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio criticized Duterte’s panda-hugging attitude during the Independence Day celebrations in 2021, saying: This is not how an independent sovereign state should act. This is how a vassal state acts. Protestors waved Philippine flags in front of the Chinese Embassy in Manila, chanting, “Atin ang Pinas! China, Layas!” (The Philippines is ours! China, go away!).
As the US recently sealed a crucial military deal (EDCA) with the Philippines close to China flashpoints, it allows the US access to four more new Philippine bases, in addition to existing five Filipino bases, for joint training, storing equipment and supplies, and building of facilities, though not to establish a permanent presence
The Taiwan Question
With rising tensions in the Taiwan Straits and aggressive Chinese maneuvers in SCS, Fuga Island of the Philippines’ northernmost Cagayan Province, located 400km to Taiwan, could become critical to the defense of the Philippines itself. It has been identified as a potential site to host the US military under EDCA. Unlike other islands in the area, Fuga has the topography to accommodate an airport and a seaport.
It is adjacent to two key passages – the Luzon Strait and the Bashi Channel – which provide access to the SCS and the Pacific. While the likelihood of China’s military invading Taiwan remains a point of debate, the fear that Chinese forces would one day occupy Fuga is very real to its residents. Beijing made futile attempts in 2019, prior to the US, to expand its presence in Fuga.
The Philippine government said in its National Security Policy 2023 to 2028, adopted on 14 Aug 2023, that the escalating tension in the Taiwan Strait is a “major concern” that could affect the country. The Philippines Defence Chief Gilbert Teodoro Jr. stated that the Philippine government is closely monitoring the threat of an invasion of Taiwan by China and preparing for possible contingencies. Teodoro further explained that the Philippines was preparing for “all contingencies,” not merely a flashpoint between China and Taiwan.
The Hidden Dragon
The concept of the hidden dragon alludes to Chinese propaganda that operates discreetly and less overtly, in contrast to the more aggressive “crouching tiger” approach. This subtle strategy involves manipulating narratives in favor of China within the Philippines, leveraging various media platforms such as News Channels, Radio, Movies, and other channels to significantly impact the local culture.
Role of Popular Culture
China has launched “China TV Theatre” on the Philippine state-run broadcasting network People’s Television Network (PTV)-4. Moreover, Chinese entertainment shows have been aired on ABS-CBN and Global Media Arts (GMA), the two largest Philippine private broadcasting networks. Aside from television programs, Chinese movies are also getting more popular in the Philippines. “Wow China,” a radio program produced through a collaboration between China Radio International and the Philippine Broadcasting Service, has been airing on the local radio station Radyo Pilipinas since mid-2018. These media platforms are utilized by Beijing to disseminate pro-China information in order to improve China’s international image in the Philippines. Ij-Reportika has done comprehensive reports on “China’s tactics to exploit cultural narratives around the globe”.
Chinese state media succeeded in establishing close ties with former President Rodrigo Duterte prior to 2019, leading to the signing of formal media cooperation agreements that are still active. Chinese state media regularly provide content, including inserts, to state broadcaster People’s Television Network and major pro-government Philippine dailies like the Manila Bulletin and the Manila Times. The Philippine Star and Philippine Daily Inquirer, two of the country’s most popular outlets, have also published inserts and articles from Chinese state media. Here is an Ij-Reportika report titled “The manipulation of the world media by China” on how China has a history of manipulating the local media of various countries.
At least 36 people from the Philippine media industry went on a subsidized trip to China in 2019, with some participants parroting Chinese state talking points upon their return. These trips stopped as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. During a lunch hosted by the Chinese embassy in Manila, a Chinese government representative reportedly berated Filipino journalists for their reporting about Taiwan and lectured them. In March 2022, the Philippines National Union of Journalists released a set of guidelines outlining how to report on China, the first of its kind in the region. This coincides with increased attention to the Chinese government’s influence in the Philippines.
Apart from the risks associated with technology from China-based companies, there is some vulnerability associated with Chinese investment in Philippine telecommunications companies, which could grant influence and leverage to the Chinese stakeholders. In March 2021, the Philippine company Dito Tele community, in which the Chinese state telecommunications company China Telecom holds a 40 percent stake, launched its mobile services in the country.
Role of Chinese Filipinos
Around 1.35 million Philippine residents—representing roughly 1.2 to 1.8 percent of the population—have a Chinese parent, and as much as 25 percent of the Filipino population is estimated to have Chinese ancestry. Diaspora elites in the country also have strong economic and political influence, raising the possibility that a successful Chinese-language media influence campaign could have a significant impact on Philippine politics.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila regularly interacts with these “overseas Chinese” and ensures that their loyalty remains to CPC-led PRC through various UFWD activities, especially in and around the world’s oldest Chinatown in Manila: Binondo (岷倫洛). All major Chinese newspapers published in the Philippines take editorial guidance from Chinese state media for news reportage on both China as well as the Philippines, instead of carrying out independent journalism. They include, but not limited to, Chinese Commercial News (菲律賓商報), Philippine Chinese Daily (菲律賓華報), World News (菲律賓世界日報) and United Daily News (聯合日報). Six diaspora print publications including Yazhou Zhoukan, an international publication that also publishes in the Philippines, featured special issues to honor the 100th anniversary of the CCP in 2021.
Role of Chinese Criminal Syndicates
Lending apps in the Philippines such as Pesoloan, Fast Cash, Atome PH, Good Loan, Qcash and 25 others such having Chinese origin victimized a huge number of Filipino people. Complainants say the harassment and shaming started when they failed to pay their balances on time. The people behind the lending app called or texted their contact list about their inability to return the money, causing them embarrassment and emotional stress.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of the Philippines has issued a cease and desist order against 30 illegal Chinese-origin mobile lending applications, heeding complaints of unreasonable and abusive lending and collection practices. The commission also ordered the online lending operators to cease offering and advertising their lending business through the Internet and to delete or remove promotional presentations and offerings of such lending businesses from the Internet including the lending applications that they operate.
Role of Social Media
The Philippines is vulnerable to disinformation by pro-Beijing actors due to gaps in the country’s legal and policy safeguards as well as in public expertise and knowledge on the issue.
In September 2020, Facebook announced that it had dismantled a Chinese disinformation campaign that used false accounts and profiles to dupe unwitting individuals into consuming Beijing’s disinformation. Dubbed “Operation Naval Gazing” by the social media analysis firm Graphika, the network consisted of 155 accounts, 11 pages, nine groups and six Instagram accounts and attracted an audience of at least 130,000 followers. The network particularly targeted the Philippines, where it actively interfered in Philippine politics and generated millions of digital interactions by promoting politicians favourable to China, including former President Rodrigo Duterte. This marks the second time that Facebook has removed disinformation networks emanating from China and heralds a new age of information warfare in the Indo-Pacific region, where the United States and its allies like the Philippines are uniquely vulnerable to attack.
In conclusion, the Philippines possesses independent expertise in China within academic circles, particularly through top universities like Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle University. However, the consultation between academic experts and journalists remains unclear, with a predominant focus on topics directly related to Sino-Filipino bilateral relations, potentially neglecting crucial aspects of Chinese party-state internal politics, governance, and influence tactics.
Organizations like the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies and the Manila-based Integrated Development Studies Institute (IDSI), run by a Chinese-Filipino businessman, contribute to a developing community of China scholars. However, some public events and content dissemination may overlook sensitive issues, such as the crackdown on civil society in Hong Kong and Beijing’s persecution of religious and ethnic minorities.
IDSI, in particular, has been noted for sharing questionable content on Facebook, predominantly pro-China and anti-U.S., including articles from pro-Beijing, pro-Duterte newspapers like the Manila Times.
From the Chinese perspective, the Philippines’ emphasis on the Taiwan issue is seen as a strategy to attract U.S. military assistance and bolster its stance on South China Sea disputes. This approach contrasts with the previous administration’s policies, as the current government, led by Marcos, supports AUKUS and takes a more assertive stance in the South China Sea.
The shift in the Philippines’ approach under Marcos, compared to Duterte’s era, reflects a divided stance among Philippine elites regarding China policy and the Taiwan issue. While Duterte sought closer economic ties with Beijing, the military, under the influence of hardliners, is taking steps to strengthen defense capabilities and enhance deterrence against China.
Despite China’s public statements advocating resolution through international frameworks like the U.N. Charter and UNCLOS, its actions on the ground contradict these principles. Manila faces calculated risks in effectively dealing with Beijing, encompassing armed insurgency issues, ethnic conflicts, territorial disputes, and Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea, requiring careful navigation of diplomatic challenges.The Crouching Tiger or the Hidden Dragon: Chinese Influence Ops in the Philippines