POSTSCRIPT / March 28, 2021 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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China eyes another ‘cabbage capture’?

EXPANSIONIST moves of China in the region’s common sea, most of which it claims on the basis of dubious historical rights, are wrapped in stealth and duplicity when Beijing needs to explain them.

But exactly eight years ago, a Chinese admiral flushed with victory disclosed details of operations that resulted in China’s takeover in 2012 of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal just 240 km off Zambales and 740 km away from Hainan, the nearest province of China.

Reports on China’s intrusion into maritime areas of its neighbors in the South China Sea mention such concepts as the “Three Warfares” and “Gray Zone” strategies, the “Cabbage Capture” and the “Swarming Tactics” – the last ones cited in the attempt to swamp the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef off Palawan.

The reef, named after the Filipino composer who wrote the music of the national anthem now known as “Lupang Hinirang”, is a boomerang-shaped and shallow coral area 320 km west of Bataraza town of Palawan, well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

After media published photos of some 200 Chinese militia boats swarming Julian Felipe, Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. fired off a diplomatic protest. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana deplored the “clear provocative action of militarizing the area” and called on China to stop it.

Maritime experts describe the boats as part of the auxiliary and reserve force of China’s People’s Liberation Army.

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PRESIDENT Duterte talked later with the Chinese ambassador and expressed concern over the presence of the boats, but Malacañang reports on their conversation did not say if the President asked China to withdraw the vessels.

Some observers have asked if the Chinese swarming of Julian Felipe could lead to Duterte’s “Scarborough” – a reference to then-President Noynoy Aquino’s “losing” that rich traditional fishing ground after a standoff with China in 2012.

We have mentioned China’s vaunted “cabbage capture” tactic in Postscript. On April 11, 2013, we quoted a China Daily News report of rear admiral Zhang Zhaozhong detailing how the PLA Navy took over Scarborough.

(Wikipedia says Zhang is a military theorist at the PLA National Defense University. He was a rear admiral in the PLA Navy before he retired in 2015, but some reports mention him with the army rank of major general.)

• ‘Cabbage capture’ used in Panatag

IS CHINA planning to repeat in Julian Felipe its capture of Scarborough that brought PLA’s presence within 270 km of strategic Subic Bay that used to be a jewel of a base of the US Navy in the Pacific?

Excerpts from our columns, such as one on June 4, 2013, and from transcripts of a Zhang TV interview that we have printed may give a hint of the answer:

“Listening to a Chinese admiral disclose their strategy in taking over Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales as well as other isles and fishing grounds, one would think Beijing is deliberately shaming Filipinos and their leaders.

“After President Noynoy Aquino declared that Filipinos would defend ‘what is ours’ to the last fighting man, China responded by sending a swarm of fishing boats escorted by warships.

“In a television interview, Chinese rear admiral Zhang Zhaozhong said that their navy has been wrapping Panatag like a ‘cabbage’ with their warships, thus keeping away Filipino naval ships and fishing boats.”

In the Zhang interview, the Philippines was cast as the villain whose puny attempts to protect its domain were described as “rude” and “barbaric”.

“(He) talked of how they have been employing the ‘cabbage capture’ strategy to secure Panatag by constant surveillance and the posting there administrative fishing vessels and warships.

“ ’If the Philippines wants to go in, in the outermost area, it has first to ask whether our navy will allow it,’ Zhang said. ‘Then it has to ask whether our fishery administration ships and marine surveillance ships will allow it.’

“(TV host: ‘We’ve watched the footage. The big screen shows the Chinese islands and reefs illegally occupied by the Philippines. What one has stolen has to be returned. No matter how long the Philippines have illegally occupied those Chinese islands and reefs, it cannot change the fact that they are inherent Chinese territories. What shall we do to counter those rude and barbarian acts of the Philippines?’)

“Zhang: ‘We have done some things relatively successfully. Since the 1990s, the Philippines has done illegal and irrational things in its attempt to turn Huangyan (Scarborough/Panatag) Island into its territory by means of presidential order, domestic legislation, and so on.

“ ’Each time our Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested, it refused to listen. It was busy doing this and that, such as sunk a boat there and conducting patrols there. By April 2012, an incident finally took place, it detained Chinese fishermen by force. It sent troops to detain at gunpoint the fishermen who had entered the lagoon to fish normally.’

“The admiral said that China’s so-called successful recovery of similar contested areas such as the Spratlys group have been due to ‘right timing.’

“ ’Over the past few years, we have made a series of achievements at the Nansha Islands (the Spratlys), the greatest of which I think have been on the Huangyan Island, Meiji Reef (Mischief Reef) and Ren’ai Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal),’ he added.

“China has also been sending ships to the Ayungin Shoal near Palawan. The shoal is also within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

“Zhang said that Chinese authorities’ next step would be to have a ‘vigorous development’ on the islands to support China’s economy as well as its tourism efforts, fisheries and marine protection.

“ ’We have to do much more work there, and coordinate various efforts. We should not rely only on military effort. In the military perspective, fighting is the last resort while before it there must be production on a large scale and with high enthusiasm and large-scale production on the sea,’ he concluded.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 28, 2021)

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