They first showed up around Whitsun Reef in December. A growing fleet of Chinese boats, anchoring hull to hull in the shallow water around the boomerang-shape reef, 200 miles west of The Philippines in the South China Sea.
By March there were around 220 Chinese boats near the reef. It appeared to officials in Manila and Washington that Beijing was about to execute another forceful land-grab, potentially leading to the establishment of yet another Chinese military outpost in disputed waters.
In mid-April, the Chinese boats began dispersing. What happened in the intervening month is clear. The U.S. and Philippine navies deployed powerful forces to the region while diplomats plainly stated that Chinese occupation of a reef inside The Philippines’ exclusive economic zone could warrant a military response.
“The Chinese have blinked,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired U.S. Navy officer and author of To Provide and Maintain a Navy. Of course, it remains to be seen for how long they’ve blinked.
Beijing’s forces began moving into the China Seas in the mid-2000s, seizing islands that, in many cases, several Southeast Asian countries also claimed.
The operations were similar. Vessels belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s maritime militia—in essence, patrol boats disguised as fishing boats—surrounded a disputed island, forcing out the vessels of rival countries.
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Dredgers moved in next, wrecking ecologically fragile reefs in order to build solid foundations of rock and sand. Construction crews built ports, roads, barracks and airstrips. Military personnel moved in. Sensors and weapons appeared. Warplanes and warships began visiting.
Today the PLA maintains 27 major island outposts in the East and South China Seas, including one particularly provocative one on Fiery Cross Reef, a hundred miles west of Whistun Reef.
The outposts reinforce Beijing’s claim on surrounding mineral resources and fisheries. In the event of war, they also could function as staging bases for Chinese warplanes, helping them to leapfrog hundreds of miles across the western Pacific Ocean.
Adding Whitsun Reef to its holdings would only tighten China’s hold on the region.
But Chinese officials didn’t know if they could get away with it. U.S. president Joe Biden is still settling into the White House. The U.S. Navy is struggling to grow its fleet while also maintaining aging, unreliable ships. “This was a test of the Biden administration,” Hendrix said.
Biden apparently has passed the test.
As the Chinese militia fleet around Whitsun reached its peak size last month, the U.S. fleet concentrated its ships that were already underway in the western Pacific. The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the assault ship USS Makin Island in early April joined up, combining their air wings and their escorting cruisers, destroyers and submarines.
“The signal is unambiguously clear to somebody amidst the Whitsun Reef saga,” quipped Collin Koh, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Meanwhile, Biden’s Asia czar Kurt Campbell undoubtedly worked the phones, coordinating the American response with the Philippine one. Four Philippine warships, including Manila’s two brand-new missile corvettes Jose Rizal and Antonio Luna, headed toward Whitsun Reef.
Use of force was on the table. “An armed attack against The Philippines armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the mutual defense treaty,” a U.S. State Department spokesman warned.
Beijing’s boats pulled anchor. “The Chinese were surprised by the extent to which their maneuver by their naval militia engendered cooperation and mutual support between the United States, its treaty partners and others in the region,” Hendrix said. “In the end, China realized that its continued presence was simply going to strengthen the resistance.”
It’s unclear whether the Whitsun Reef conflict represents a turning point. Beijing could try again to seize the reef—or simply shift its forces to a different geographic feature. The United States and The Philippines reacted swiftly and forcefully to protect Whitsun Reef, but will they respond with similar resolve to the next Chinese provocation?
Hendrix said he is optimistic. “To the extent that China does gray-zone activities like this, they have helped the United States to consolidate international resistance to their actions.”