From Galwan Valley to Ayungin Shoal | Inquirer Opinion

From Galwan Valley to Ayungin Shoal

China’s recent effort to disrupt and prevent the resupply of BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal has taken a more dangerous and provocative turn. China Coast Guard personnel armed with knives, axes, and poles clashed with Philippine Navy personnel and ended up not only damaging and confiscating equipment and supplies, but also injuring some Filipino sailors who defended themselves with their bare hands.

So what happens next? Considering that China is hellbent on preventing the Philippines from reinforcing BRP Sierra Madre, while the Philippines appears to be just as determined to save that grounded naval vessel from falling apart into the sea, it is quite likely that we’d experience similar incidents more frequently. With the government noting it was not yet ready to define this latest aggression as an armed attack in the context of invoking the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States, and Navy spokesperson Commodore Roy Trinidad stating that the Philippines will not fire the first shot, China will be emboldened to continue such aggressive and dangerous actions. These are tactics that the Chinese have been using against Indian troops in the contested territory in the Ladakh region in the Himalayas for a number of years now.

It may be recalled that China and India have an ongoing territorial dispute along their land border in the Himalayas, and even fought a brief war over those contested areas in 1962. More recently in June 2020, Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in violent clashes along the Line of Actual Control in the Galwan Valley which resulted in the death of 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers. That clash was fought with sticks, stones, and clubs, not guns. Even as peace talks between China and India were ongoing following that fatal 2020 clash, China is believed to have attacked two Indian military outposts in January and November 2022, leading to injuries on both sides but no deaths.

While there is stark contrast between the operational environments of the Himalayan mountains and the waters in Ayungin Shoal, it is apparent that as part of its salami slicing strategy, China is employing similar tactics in both disputes aimed at provoking their opponents to take the first shot.


So what key insights does the Galwan Valley clash provide the Philippines? In his commentary in The Japan Times, professor of Geostrategic Strategies Brahma Chellaney of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, noted that “the fundamental message from Chinese expansionism in the Himalayas is that China can disturb the status quo at any time of its choosing, even if it means violating binding bilateral agreements and international norms.”

He further noted that improvements in bilateral relations don’t guarantee that they would deter China, as he pointed out that Chinese encroachments occurred just six months after Chinese President Xi Jinping declared during a visit to India that “China-India relations have entered a new phase of sound and stable development.”

According to Chellaney, China’s aggressive actions have no relation to the state of ties with its target country, and that increased bilateral trade and economic interdependence won’t act as a constraint on China. In fact, it will “constrict the other side’s strategic leeway for fear of losing access to the Chinese market.”

If Chellaney’s insights and comments seem familiar, it’s because the same thing is being experienced by the Philippines with regard to the West Philippine Sea (WPS) issue. For critics of the current policy regarding this issue, such insights show that China is not acting in good faith when it comes to the WPS. Their words don’t match their actions, and there are many documented events to substantiate this.


In terms of dealing with this new development, I am not advocating for war as I believe diplomacy and dialogue still have their use in dealing with, and hopefully resolving, this conflict. But we also need to be aware of the dangers of appeasement and fully understand the true nature and intentions of those we are facing across the negotiating table, and more importantly, over the disputed waters in the WPS.



Moira G. Gallaga served three Philippine presidents as presidential protocol officer and was posted as a diplomat at the Philippine Consulate General in Los Angeles, and the Philippine Embassy in Washington.

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