The Philippines are beginning to show some resistance against the increasingly bothersome presence of Chinese militia ships in waters that everyone considers as belonging to the Philippines. The one country that is of a different opinion is, of course, China itself.

The Chinese have over two million active military personnel and have the second largest defense budget estimated at about $175 billion (The United States has the largest budget at nearly $700 billion for 2018). The Philippine defense budget pales in comparison at around $4 billion and the country has active and reserve personnel numbering less than 500,000.

Calling the deployment of Chinese militia ships a threat and vastly dwarfed militarily, the only recourse the Philippines has is to file diplomatic protests and appeal to international arbiters like the UN.

In 2016 the Philippines was the winner of such a ruling when the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration decided that the Philippines had “exclusive sovereign rights” over the West Philippine Sea and that China’s “Nine-Dash Line” was invalid. The only problem was that China has simply ignored the ruling.

China is currently embroiled in two battles that threaten its goal of being the world’s leading nation economically and militarily. Pro-democracy groups are rioting in Hong Kong and if the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is deployed to quell the violence, there will be dire financial consequences for China and the former British Colony. The other battle is the trade war with the U.S. that will hurt the American economy but could devastate the Chinese economy.

 South China Sea
A fishing boat used to fish in the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea is pictured in Masinloc, Zambales, in the Philippines, April 22, 2015. Several nations are vying for control of the area. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

The aggressive acts by China in the South China Sea might be an attempt to replace what will likely be lost in the trade war and the situation in Hong Kong.

The recent diplomatic protests filed by Manila involve the waters near Pagasa Island (also called Thitu Island), the biggest occupied island in the Spratly Island chain inside the Philippine’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). They also covered the ongoing problem of Chinese warships passing through the Sibutu Strait. Military ships are supposed to alert the governments of coastal countries of their passing, but the Chinese ships gave no notifications and had shut off their automatic identification systems.

As the Chinese ships lurk around the waters surrounding Pagasa Island, they frustrate Filipino fishermen by blocking their access to their traditional fishing grounds. The fishing boats are no match for the steel hulled vessels that masquerade as fishing vessels but are really performing a wide variety of other tasks including resupply and monitoring for the Chinese Navy. All the while, they are harassing other vessels in what appears to be an effort to assert China’s maritime claims.