How China Treats a Friend


The ramming of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel last week marked an escalation in the South China Sea. But you wouldn’t know it listening to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has become exhibit A for the folly of appeasing Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions.

A Chinese fishing boat struck the F/B Gimver 1 on the edge of the Spratly Islands, which Beijing claims as its territory, sinking the ship and leaving 22 Filipino fishermen stranded at sea before they were picked up by a Vietnamese vessel. The Chinese deny the collision was intentional, but Philippine Navy Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad said “the ship was rammed” and anchored at the time. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also condemned the Chinese action.

Enter Mr. Duterte, who on Monday downplayed the collision as “a little maritime accident” and called for an investigation, according to the Philippine Star. “The only thing we can do,” he said, “is to wait and give the other party the right to be heard.”

Wait for what? Mr. Duterte has bowed before Chinese aggression for three years. After his election in 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that China’s claims to nearly the entire South China Sea—including the Spratly archipelago—violated international law. But Mr. Duterte ignored the ruling, gambling that appeasement would minimize conflict and boost economic ties.

That bet soured as China has since placed advanced antiship and anti-aircraft artillery on its Spratly Islands bases, which also host ports and airfields. Earlier this year Philippine media reported the Chinese effectively wrested control of Thitu Island, located in the Spratlys, from Philippine fishermen using paramilitary vessels.

Such naval militia often pose as fishing boats, which may explain last week’s collision. The Pentagon’s 2019 report on the Chinese military found that Beijing uses these opaque tactics as “an effective means of accomplishing political objectives.” China’s southern island province of Hainan ordered “the building of 84 large militia fishing vessels with reinforced hulls and ammunition storage” which were delivered in 2016, says the report.

Beijing’s usurpations are being challenged by the U.S. The Trump Administration has increased freedom of navigation operations through the disputed waters, and the U.K., France and other allies have joined.