Defense chief says China ‘aggressive’ but no longer ‘a bully’

By Martin Sadongdong

China’s reclamation works and militarization of some artificial islands in the South China Sea (SCS), the swarming of fishing boats near the islands claimed by the Philippines, and the uncoordinated passage and activities of their warships and survey ships within our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) are signs of “aggressiveness” which do not necessarily make the Asian military powerhouse “bullies.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (Office of the Secretary of National Defense / MANILA BULLETIN)
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (Office of the Secretary of National Defense / MANILA BULLETIN)

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has viewed the recent activities of China in the South China Sea as mere assertion of their claims in the disputed waters.

“I don’t describe them [as bully]. What they are doing there, they have been doing those activities since the President came in,” he said.

READ MORE: Defense Chief clarifies ‘China bully’ tag

Recently, China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea prompted officials to “fire off” diplomatic protests against Beijing.

The first diplomatic protest was filed by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin when a Chinese vessel sunk a Philippine fishing boat in an apparent allision near the Recto (Reed) Bank on June 9.

The second one was filed last month when National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. revealed that hundreds of Chinese vessels had swarmed Pag-asa (Thitu) Island.

The recent uncoordinated passage of Chinese aircraft carrier CV-16 Liaoning in Sibutu Strait, Tawi-Tawi, and the apparent marine research operations of oceanographic survey ships Zhanjian and Dong Fang Hong 3 within the country’s EEZ while Philippine officials were uninformed were a cause of concern for the authorities. The latter prompted Locsin to file the third diplomatic protest.

READ MORE: PH to file another diplomatic protest over presence of two Chinese ships in EEZ

During a disaster resilience summit in Quezon City last week, the Defense Chief called China a bully when he described the way they took some of the islands being possessed by the Philippines years back.

“When I said China is a bully, I was referring to previous years like when they took the Mischief [Reef] forcibly from us and also the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 or 2014,” Lorenzana reiterated.

“But recently, they have not been bullying us because they have not occupied any feature in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.

He said that President Duterte, who has since established warm relations with Beijing, did not react to his controversial statement.

“I did not get any reaction from him,” Lorenzana said.

However, the United States, which is a rival of China in terms of world military superpower and one of the long-time allies of the Philippines, has a different view.

On Sunday, August 4, US Defense Secretary Mike Asper criticized China’s “aggressive, destabilizing behavior of swarming and militarizing” the South China Sea.

“I agree, because they [China] have militarized… reclaimed shoals and reefs and made them into artificial islands. They have put long runways there, structures, and landed military aircrafts… put in defensive weapons. That’s militarizing,” Lorenzana said.

“But if you listen to the Chinese narrative, they are not here to attack anybody but to protect their own interests. They always say that what they are doing in the South China Sea, in the artificial islands, are all defensive,” he added.

While Lorenzana seemed to adjust his erstwhile strong dissent against China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea, he maintained that the Philippine government must protect its territory against any foreign invasion.

“You have to understand, in the military term, a defensive capability can be turned into offensive capability in an instant,” he said.