Floating in the South China Sea near Recto Bank, or Reed Bank as it is also known, the crew of the Philippine vessel F/B Gimver 1 braced for impact as the Chinese-flagged Yuemaobinyu 42212 steamed directly toward their craft. Ignoring the Philippine crew's entreaties to rapidly change course, the Chinese captain plowed his ship into the smaller vessel, seemingly oblivious to his responsibilities under international collision regulations to avoid the crash. Crippled and sinking, the Gimver 1's crew abandoned ship, confident their Chinese counterparts would pick them up. That, however, was not what happened: Ignoring his responsibilities for a second time, the Yuemaobinyu's captain abandoned the Filipinos to their fate. Though the 22 mariners were eventually rescued by a Vietnamese ship, the incident early on the morning on June 9 increased tensions between Beijing, on one side, and Manila and its allies on the other.
The reaction from the United States was as forceful as it was expected. Without mentioning the incident directly, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, made reference to a militarized fishing fleet, or maritime militia, when suggesting an attack by "government-sanctioned militias" could trigger the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). His comments served as a warning to China — going further than those made by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who tried to reassure a skeptical Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in February that the 1951 treaty remained in Manila's best interests. Though Duterte is more vocal than his predecessors about his concerns surrounding the deal, his skepticism toward the treaty is not new among the country's leaders. Both sides in the long and occasionally troubled U.S.-Philippine alliance have used the MDT to shape each other's behavior, most recently with regard to its applicability to the South China Sea. But as foreign policy experts around the world mull the content of Kim's statements about Recto Bank, some key wording suggests the intended audience may be Manila — rather than Beijing — and that Washington isn't all too eager to dive into a battle with China.
What's in an 'Armed Attack'?
Pompeo and Kim were both very careful with the terms they used to describe the incident. The phrase "if an armed attack occurs" refers to Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which codifies states' inherent rights to self-defense in the event of an armed attack. But understanding the U.S. response to the Recto Bank incident and how it affects the MDT requires an understanding of what the Chinese maritime militia is and what it is not.
The Recto Bank incident amounts to a deliberate attempt to avoid classification as an "armed attack," making it a classic indicator of hybrid warfare.
According to U.S. Naval War College professor Andrew Erickson, the People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia is a "state-organized, -developed, and -controlled force operating under a direct military chain of command to conduct Chinese state-sponsored activities" — which makes it anything but a group of zealously patriotic fishermen. The militia is trained, manned and equipped with vessels purpose-built for ramming other craft and armed with non-lethal munitions that allow the organization to avoid designation as a naval unit. According to Erickson, the militia is a component of the Chinese military that responds through the chain of command to President Xi Jinping himself. Despite this, the militia falls through the cracks of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and other international agreements — including the MDT — that govern the use of force between states because it is not, officially, a naval unit. In this respect, the militia resembles other emerging and poorly regulated tools of state power such as teams that engage in cyberattacks and information warfare on behalf of a country. The Recto Bank incident amounts to a deliberate attempt to avoid classification as an "armed attack," making it a classic indicator of "hybrid warfare." When packaged into a coherent hybrid warfare campaign, these tools can present a significant threat to international peace and stability as occurred in Crimea in 2014.
Following the Recto Bank incident, Washington intimated that Chinese provocations in the South China Sea could result in the application of the MDT. In time, however, the United States has somewhat muddied the waters on the MDT: While the United States certainly wishes to maintain access to the Philippine bases identified in the treaty, it is less eager to invoke the pact's Article IV — which spells out the defense relations between Washington and Manila — over a wrecked Philippine fishing vessel. Perhaps the United States' hedging is what prompted Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to demand clarity about the MDT's applicability to these types of incidents. Without clarity, he argued, Manila ought to review the treaty to determine its relevance to the country's defense.
Lorenzana's point is a valid one. Reading between the lines of the U.S. ambassador's statements revealed that Washington is more interested in deterring the Philippines from questioning the utility of the MDT than in preventing China from employing hybrid warfare in the South China Sea. The American tactic, however, appears to have worked a bit too well: During the periodic U.S.-Philippine Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, held July 15-16 in Manila, the Philippine ambassador to the United States, Babe Romualdez, announced the two countries were in talks to "strengthen" the decades-old treaty. Duterte took it a step further the next day, informally invoking the MDT and inviting the United States to send its 7th Fleet to protect the Philippines from China.
Having called America's bluff, the skeptical Duterte may decide the Mutual Defense Treaty is actually as hollow as he has previously suggested it is.
The request presents a dilemma for the United States. Duterte made his surprise demand without following a formal consultative process (he made it abruptly during a TV interview), while his call also lacked any of the coordinating details necessary to invoke the constitutional requirements stipulated in the treaty. Still, Washington is under pressure to demonstrate the pact's credibility after previously communicating verbal guarantees regarding its viability. But almost two months since the Recto Bank incident, there does not appear to be any appetite to commit U.S. naval forces in response to an incident that China presented as an accident between two fishing vessels.
At a certain point, however, China's repeated coercion in the region cannot go unanswered. Manila's perception that Washington is dragging its feet gets to the heart of the MDT. Having called America's bluff, the skeptical Duterte may decide the MDT is actually as hollow as he has previously suggested it is. At stake is a strategic effort to maintain American access to the South China Sea amid an ongoing Chinese consolidation of its position there. And unless the United States and the Philippines reconcile their views of mutual defense in the face of such "unarmed attacks," they will soon find themselves faced with an unbreakable chain of heavily fortified Chinese islands immune to any pressure short of war.