Tensions around the contested island of Thitu (Tagalog: Pag-asa; Chinese: Zhongye) are escalating as China and the Philippines continue to press their claims. In March, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) and other observers counted up to 275 Chinese vessels near Thitu, up from December’s high of 95. On April 1, the Philippines registered an official protest against China’s Thitu presence, citing worries that what appear to be fishing boats are actually part of China’s maritime militia. The following day, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivered an address in which he implied an unwillingness to take military action, noting that Chinese missiles could reach Manila in “seven minutes” were war declared. Yet on April 4, the Philippine government released a firm public statement on Thitu that included the unusually forceful claim that the Chinese presence is “illegal.” Chinese officials responded swiftly, telling the Wall Street Journal later the same day that their ship movements are “beyond reproach.” Duterte ended April 4 with a fiery speech at a rally in Puerto Princesa in which he told China not to touch Thitu: “If you make moves there … I will tell my soldiers, ‘Prepare for suicide mission.’”
All of these events have taken place against the backdrop of Balikatan 2019, a major annual U.S.-Philippines-Australian joint exercise scheduled for April 1-12 in Luzon and Palawan. Balikatan’s latest iteration involves a combined total of 7,000 service members, as well as deployment of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp carrying an unusually heavy complement of F-35B fighters. U.S. weapons systems are moving all over the region, whether through joint exercise or sale. Singapore announced in March that it is making a preliminary purchase of four F-35 jets from Lockheed-Martin as it begins the process of replacing its aging fleet of F-16s. And Vietnam received six Metal Shark patrol boats from the United States on March 31, a gift worth approximately $12 million. One of the few places the United States has decided against sending materiel is the upcoming celebrations of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s 70th anniversary. The Trump administration has rejected Beijing’s invitation to send several warships to participate in the ceremonies, citing worries that it could be seen as supporting the legitimacy of China’s maritime claims.