Drive fast enough down the well-built coastal road in Barangay Buenavista, a stone's throw from the waters of Ulugan Bay on the Philippine island province of Palawan, and you might miss the doorstep for a future amphibious invasion force. Were China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and marine forces ever to be tasked with teaching the Philippines a “lesson,” much as Deng Xiaoping taught such a lesson to Vietnam and its former Soviet ally during a brief 1979 war, that coastal road provides a crucial western access that would put PLA mechanized forces about an hour north of Palawan's capital of Puerto Princesa.
For China, Palawan has become the “eastern front” in its gradual campaign to extend its control over the South China Sea. A rapid raid against Puerto Princesa becomes more feasible as China builds its fleet of aircraft carriers and large amphibious assault ships and as Beijing considers ways to cut off Manila from its U.S. ally.
In 1995, Beijing stunned Manila and the region by stealthily occupying Mischief Reef, which is 209 km (130 mi.) from Palawan and 1,300 km from China's Hainan Island. Mischief Reef now has four structures, including a new radar tower, and regularly hosts Chinese navy, police and fishing ships. It is one of nine islets China occupies in the Spratly Island Group, whereas the Philippines occupies seven islands and three reefs and Vietnam six islands plus 22 reefs and banks.
Since the middle of the last decade, China increased its presence and pressure in these islands. By 2006 new construction on some of China's islets included large radar towers and helicopter landing pads, and by 2008 Chinese maritime police vessels began patrols up close to the other claimants' islands. In February 2011 Chinese ships harassed a Philippine petroleum survey ship near the Reed Bank, and later that May, two Chinese fighter jets intercepted two Philippine OV-10 Bronco turboprop aircraft patrolling in the same area.
This year, Chinese pressure began in the north when in early April the Philippines dispatched its new frigate Grigorio Del Pilar (the former U.S. Coast Guard ship Hamilton) to confront Chinese fishing ships in Scarborough Shoal. A diplomatic and military standoff ensued, as China dispatched Maritime Surveillance Agency and Fishing Ministry ships to block Philippine ships. This was followed by a show of force, in which China dispatched over 70 ships to Scarborough in early May, while a PLAN formation of five combatants led by the Type 071 landing platform dock Kunlunshan deliberately raised fears of an imminent PLA attack.
China stoked further regional tensions when on July 12 it used a compliant Cambodia to block a consensus statement at the end of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) regional forum that would have included concern over China's actions, deliberately tearing longstanding Asean solidarity.
The day before, the PLAN Jianghu-IV class frigate Dongguan ran aground on Half Moon Shoal, about 70 mi. from the coast of Palawan, for reasons still unclear. On July 14 a Philippines Air Force Britten-Norman BN-2A Islander approached the shoal to photograph the beached frigate and about six other Chinese ships sent to lend assistance, including a Jiangwei-II class frigate.
U.S. political activism in this region is mirrored by a far more serious effort to revive lapsed military cooperation with the Philippines. In 2010 Filipinos elected a willing partner in President Benigno Aquino 3rd, who has led the most serious Philippine external defense modernization effort since the 1960s. On July 1 Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin announced the intention to purchase six Korean Aircraft Industries T/A-50lead-in fighter trainers, which could grow to 12 or more. On Aug. 2 he announced the intention to purchase two Italian Maestrale-class frigates over the next two years, that would give the Philippine navy its most potent combat ship ever.
Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have worked with Manila to rebuild its defenses. Three Hamilton-class frigates could be delivered by 2013, and, more recently, Washington has been helping Manila build a new “coast watch” surveillance capability. There have also been more important strides to increase training and professionalism in the Filipino military. Three annual exercise cycles—Balikatan, Phiblex and Carat—have facilitated a regular deployment of U.S. Navy,and Air Force assets; Philippine navy personnel fly patrols in U.S. Navy P-3 Orion aircraft. These could be spending more time in the Philippines, as Manila is now open to an increased U.S. military presence on a rotational basis that does not approach formal basing.