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Four PLAN Warships Sail Through Balabac Strait to Apply Pressure on the Philippines

On June 19th, The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) confirmed that four People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships sailed through the southern tip of Palawan, commonly known as the Balabac Strait. The warships were identified as the PLAN destroyer Guangzhou (Luyang I/Type 052B), the destroyer Dalian (Renhai/Type 055 class cruiser), the frigate Huangshan (Jiangkai II/Type 054 frigate), and the replenishment oiler Qiandaohu (Fuchi/Type 903). The AFP reported that all four warships sailed southwest and operated without incident.

On June 22nd, the PLAN destroyer Dalian appeared to make port at the Kota Kinabalu naval base in Malaysia. The base is located northeast of Brunei and southwest of the Balabac Strait. Neither Malaysia nor China made an official statement on the docking of the Chinese flotilla.

Philippine’s Reaction

In a press conference, the AFP Public Affairs chief, Colonel Xerxes Trinidad, stated, “As part of standard operating procedure, these vessels were challenged, and they responded accordingly.” Colonel Trinidad reiterated that the “capability to monitor and respond to such activities is a testament to our commitment to maritime domain awareness and the protection of our territory.”

On June 22nd, Roberto Ballon, the chairman of the Movement of Artisanal Fishermen in the Philippines, expressed fear shared by the fishermen who are worried they “will be the next to suffer,” being restricted from entering the sea or catching fish resources from Filipino claimed territory. The Mindanao fisherfolk are urging the Philippine government and Navy for protection following the sighting of PLAN warships off the coast of Balabac. These concerns are increasing within the Philippine populace amid the June 17th CCG ramming incident.

Increased Chinese Presence is Challenging The Boundaries of the Philippines

In recent weeks, China has increased its provocation with the Philippines in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS). The sailing of the four PLAN warships through the Balabac Strait is China’s way of increasing tensions with the Philippines in other strategic areas. The PLAN flotilla sailed through the Balabac Strait less than 48 hours after the boarding of Philippine naval vessels by the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) on June 17th, indicating that the decision to sail through the Balabac Strait was likely a pre-mediated strategic decision to apply more pressure to the local Philippine populace amid the June 17th clash. The naval trajectory to sail on the east side of Palawan to Kota Kinbalu naval base rather than through the SCS is a much longer path. This reflects the intentionality of the timing and positioning of the PLAN flotilla. The Mindanao fishermen already released statements of concern and fear regarding the PLAN activity, reflecting China’s goal of applying pressure to other strategic areas.

The escalation of aggressive action within the disputed territories of the South China Sea signals that China is willing to take bolder action to legitimize its territorial claims. There is likely to be an uptick of CCG and PLAN activity within the area to retain a strong naval presence. If diplomatic channels are opened between China and the Philippines to settle these escalated incidents, China will likely leverage the increase in provocation when negotiating settlements with the Philippines.

John Conrod
John Conrod
John is a college senior majoring in International Relations with a minor in Mandarin Chinese. He is an analyst specializing on current events in the Indo-Pacific region.

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