KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 352

The Dangers of Cognitive Warfare in the South China Sea: The Philippine Experience

National Police College, Philippines Professor
Amparo Pamela Fabe

The Philippines has always espoused its firm adherence to an international rules-based order in the South China Sea. Furthermore, it has also renounced war as an instrument of national policy and advocated peaceful resolution to conflicts. However, escalating coercive actions by China in the South China Sea, spanning the economic, information, and maritime domains, have indeed created a volatile situation. Coercive actions include laser pointing of military grade lasers, the implementation of dangerous maneuvers such as the blocking and ramming of maritime law enforcement vessels, the creation of artificial islands, deployments of maritime militia, military deployments and interference with fishing and resource extraction activities and the destruction of coral reefs inside the Philippine’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

In the face of persistent Chinese coercive actions, the Philippines initiated arbitration under Annex VII of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), disputing China’s claims to much of the South China Sea maritime area as incompatible. Both the Philippines and China are parties to UNCLOS. The Arbitral Tribunal was established in accordance with Article 3 Annex VII (“Arbitration”) of the UNCLOS. Briefly, UNCLOS sets the rules to cover the breadth of maritime zones, which is measured from baselines drawn along the coast. Boundaries must be ‘delimited’ where geographic circumstances result in the overlap of states’ maritime claims. If the affected states are unable to reach an agreement, judicial and non-judicial means can resolve maritime boundary disputes. Among the maritime security challenges identified by UNCLOS are China’s actions in the South China Sea. The Submissions of the Philippines consists of the Submissions 1 to 7, which “concern various aspects of the parties’ dispute over the sources and extent of maritime entitlements in the South China Sea,” and Submissions 8 to 14, which “concern a series of disputes regarding Chinese activities in the South China Sea,” the lawfulness of which is disputed by the Philippines (Pemmaraju, 2016).

The 2016 Arbitral Ruling in favor of the Philippines has these strategic decision points: 1.) China’s claims to historic rights and resources have no legal basis; 2.) None of China’s claimed land features in the Spratly Islands are an island capable of generating a 200-nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ); 3.) China violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by interfering with oil exploration activities, prohibiting Philippine fishing vessels from operating in traditional fishing grounds and conducting land reclamation in areas where the Philippines enjoys sovereign rights to explore and exploit natural resources; and 4.) China violated its marine environmental protection obligations under the UNCLOS by causing “severe harm to the coral reef environment” with its land reclamation activities and harvesting of endangered species. China’s non-acknowledgement and non-acceptance of the ruling has not diminished the legal merits of this decision. In addition to coercive actions by the China Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels against Philippine Coast Guard and civilian vessels, China has launched a massive disinformation campaign in the South China Sea.

The main objectives of these malign influence operations is directed to sow confusion and discord with the aim to divide the communities and weaken the resolve of Filipino citizens in upholding their territorial integrity through the use of armed force. In May 2021, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) then filed the 100th diplomatic protest against the “deployment, prolonged presence, and illegal activities” of Chinese vessels, inside its EEZ, particularly off Thitu Island (Stratsea, October 11, 2021). Cognizant of these developments, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. signed Executive Order 57 last March 25, 2024, to handle issues that impact the country’s sovereignty, and maritime jurisdiction using a whole of nation approach.

Since communities and nations are interconnected, perceptions and narratives are the linchpin of relations. Therefore, these negative and misleading perceptions are used to amplify the Chinese position. There are five distinct examples of disinformation and malign influence operations that were waged by China. One, Chinese ships ordered Filipino fisherfolk who entered Scarborough Shoal, located inside the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone, that they have entered Chinese waters. They were harassed, bullied and prevented from fishing inside the lagoon by personnel of Chinese Coast Guard vessels. In addition, their substantial fish catch was confiscated (Inquirer.net, May 27, 2024).

Second, Chinese ships attacked resupply missions of a Philippine warship inside the EEZ. China Coast Guard vessels and maritime militia vessels had harassed, blocked, and directed water cannons against a Philippine vessel on a resupply mission to military personnel on board the BRP Sierra Madre, a ship grounded at the Second Thomas Shoal, which is well within the latter’s EEZ. Philippine authorities stated that due to the harassment and dangerous maneuvers, the vessels sustained significant damage and resulted in injuries to personnel aboard the civilian vessel, Unaizah May 4 (Japan Times, March 23, 2024).

Third, the Chinese Embassy claimed that Western Command Chief Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos agreed on a new model in the South China Sea during a January 2024 phone call with Colonel Li Jianzhong, China’s defense attache. China threatened to leak the call, which it claimed was proof that the Philippines agreed to its terms in order to bring down tensions in the Second Thomas Shoal (Rappler, May 24, 2024). The Chinese Embassy released a portion of the supposed transcript of the alleged conversation to two Philippine newspapers and allowed reporters to listen to an excerpt of the supposed recording. Vice Admiral Carlos confirmed that Colonel Li of the Chinese embassy called him in January 2024, but he denied formalizing agreements with China on a new model to handle tensions. Furthermore, he denied knowledge that the call was being recorded. Moreover, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo asserted that there has never been a Cabinet-level agreement on any of the Chinese proposal pertaining to the Second Thomas Shoal. The Chinese Embassy in Manila had claimed that then Western Command Chief Vice Admiral Carlos agreed to a new model on the Philippine resupply missions in the Second Thomas Shoal with permission from ranking government officials, including Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. Secretary Teodoro denied that there was a new deal. President Marcos directed security officials to investigate the alleged wiretapping of the Chinese Embassy (Philippine News Agency, May 21, 2024).

Fourth, an ABS-CBN news team, a local TV company, had been aggressively chased by Chinese ships armed with heavy weapons in the South China Sea last April 8, 2023. Chiara Zambrano, a local broadcaster and her news team, were en route to the Second Thomas Shoal when Chinese ships chased them out of the area. The TV crew was in the area to document the attempts of Filipino fishermen to carry out their livelihood in traditional fishing grounds (Rappler, April 8, 2023).

Fifth, a Philippine Coast Guard plane carrying journalists flew over the Spratly Islands, located within the country’s EEZ in the South China Sea. Suddenly, a Chinese voice issued a stern command over the radio: “Leave immediately.” This order came from a radio operator on a Chinese Coast Guard vessel below (South China Morning Post, March 10, 2023).

There are three lessons that can be derived from the Philippine experience. One, the insidious disinformation campaigns of China serve to test and seriously weaken the Philippine government’s firm resolve to safeguard the country’s territorial integrity. Thus, the government through the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) responded by countering hostile messages and crafting strong and consistent proactive narratives through “assertive transparency.” This policy strategy includes strengthening national resilience, building international support, and imposing reputational costs on China. The PCG invited local and foreign media groups to provide actual video documentation of Chinese coercive actions against maritime law enforcement and civilian vessels within the country’s EEZ and calling out Chinese aggression and intimidation.

Second, the Philippines needs be more cohesive in its maritime security strategy by establishing a Center for Countering Information Manipulation to proactively fight disinformation by offering training and information support to lawyers, academics, journalists, politicians, intellectuals, students and social media practitioners in understanding the 2016 Arbitral Ruling. Most importantly, the government has to provide information, education and communication training on important legal frameworks such as the UNCLOS, the San Remo Manual and the Newport Manual on the Law of Naval Warfare. These legal documents serve as a practical guide on the laws and principles governing the law of the sea and the law on armed conflict for officials and lawyers, commanders and seafarers and the general public.

Third, the Philippines strengthened alliances with other partner nations and relevant actors in the wider region. The country signed new maritime security cooperation agreements with Brunei, Vietnam, South Korea and extra-regional partners such as the UK, US, Australia, Japan and New Zealand. Emerging and existing threats offer opportunities for closer diplomatic, military and economic engagements. Information sharing, procurement of vessels and aircrafts, joint training and joint maritime law enforcement patrols complemented by economic cooperation is indispensable. For example, the Philippine-South Korea Maritime Dialogue draws on the strength of security cooperation with the delivery of Korean-made frigates, the BRP Jose Rizal and BRP Antonio Luna, which was delivered in 2020 and 2021, respectively. South Korea will deliver two corvettes by 2026 and six offshore patrol vessels by 2028 (Embassy News, October 15, 2023). Moreover, there is closer cooperation between the coast guard agencies of Korea and the Philippines through the Maritime Dialogues. In addition, the inaugural bilateral conference between the Vietnam Coast Guard and the Philippine Coast Guard in April 2024 signals a significant advancement in fostering closer ties. Furthermore, efforts are directed toward improving coordination in maritime law enforcement, tackling piracy and armed robbery, as well as intensifying search and rescue operations (Vietnamplus, 2024).

Given the shared security concerns in the South China Sea, the Philippines seeks to forge cooperation with like-minded partner nations within ASEAN and the international community to deal with evolving threat perceptions and manipulative narratives that continually fill up the cognitive space. Therefore, close and substantial engagements with defense allies are indispensable so that the country will have the ability to effectively and successfully respond to the spread of selective disinformation of insidious threat actors who pursue their malign interests.

Bowers, I. (Ed.). (2024). Coalition Navies during the Korean War: Understanding Combined Naval Operations (1st ed.). Routledge.

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