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The Crouching Tiger or the Hidden Dragon: Chinese Influence Ops in the Philippines

Introduction 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. The Flashpoints There are five flashpoints between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea: 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. Download the full report on the history of Chinese aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea in 2022 and 2023. 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…

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