Manila toughens position against Beijing amidst rising Chinese pugilism in South China Sea

On August 9, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr dismissed claims that his country had an agreement with China to get rid of a Second World War-era warship, the Sierra Madre. For the past 25 years, this warship has been functioning as a military outpost in a highly disputed part of the South China Sea. If there ever did exist such a deal, Marcos Jr. said he would rescind it “as of now.”

On August 7, China lashed out at the Philippines for reneging on an “explicit” agreement to tow the ship, which the latter had intentionally grounded in 1999 to assert its territorial claims. 

At the moment, the Philippines maintains some troops aboard the Sierra Madre at the Second Thomas Shoal—referred to by Manila as Ayungin Shoal and by Beijing as Ren’ai Jiao—which is situated inside its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Previously, Jonathan Malaya, assistant director general, Philippine National Security Council (NSC), had challenged China to produce proof of such an agreement.

“If China is talking about a legally enforceable agreement, a commitment that’s legally binding then we challenge them to produce that agreement signed by a duly authorized representative of the Philippines saying that we promise to abandon or to tow away BRP Sierra Madre,” Malaya said at a forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.

Moreover, the NSC official also said he has contacted former and current administration officials and none of them could authenticate the remarks made by Beijing.

“As far as we know and we have talked to officials from the previous administrations, I am talking to many administrations and there has been no such promise. Maybe they are just talking to low level individuals in the hierarchy,” he said.

The Philippines was “committed to maintain” the dilapidated ship, Malaya said, elaborating that it was “our symbol of sovereignty in a shoal located in our EEZ.”

While an exclusive economic zone empowers a country with the right to fish and exploit other natural resources within 200 miles of its coast, it does not give de actual sovereignty over that territory.

Nonetheless, Malaya stated that the Philippines’ right to that territory had been reiterated by an arbitral ruling, alluding to an international panel of arbitrators who in 2016 unanimously ruled in favor of the Philippines. China promptly dismissed that ruling and still persists in going against it. 

On August 8, China’s embassy in Manila released a statement claiming that Ren’ai Jiao had “always been part of China’s Nansha Qundao” (a group of over 100 low islands and coral reefs in the central South China Sea, which is the crux of a territorial contestation between China and some Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines), and that China’s stance on it was “consistent and firm.”

Although the shoal has been a longstanding point of dispute between China and the Philippines, hostilities escalated last week notwithstanding an existing bilateral trade relationship.

Chinese Coast Guard fires water cannon at Filipino supply boats

On August 5, the Philippines accused China’s Coast Guard of firing water cannon at its vessels in the South China Sea, castigating such an action as unlawful and risky. The Philippine Coast Guard asserted that its vessels had been transporting food, water, fuel and other supplies for military personnel on the Sierra Madre.

In turn, the U.S. State Department said the actions staged by the Chinese Coast Guard and “maritime militia” directly undermined regional peace and stability. Subsequently, Manila summoned the Chinese ambassador, while Beijing justified its actions as “professional and restrained.”

August 5’s incident marked the first time since November 2021 that the Chinese coast guard had used water cannon against a Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal.

“The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) strongly condemns the China Coast Guard’s (CCG) dangerous maneuvers and illegal use of water cannons against the PCG vessels,” the PCG declared in a statement.

“Such actions by the CCG not only disregarded the safety of the PCG crew and the supply boats but also violated international law.”

Notably, the Philippines military said the CCG had “blocked and water cannoned” one of its chartered resupply vessels. As a result of the “excessive and offensive” actions, a second chartered vessel could not unload its cargo for the regular troop rotation and resupply operation, said military spokesperson Colonel Medel Aguilar.

“We call on the China coast guard and the central military commission to act with prudence and be responsible in their actions to prevent miscalculations and accidents that will endanger people’s lives,” Aguilar said.

After August 5’s face-off with the Philippines, China’s state broadcaster aired an interview with the captain of the Chinese navy’s largest helicopter carrier, who declared that it was his dream that “one day we are able to fully and independently protect our maritime rights and interests on our own ancestral sea.”

To guarantee its interests in the South China Sea (often referred to by Beijing as its “ancestral sea”), to which it almost entirely claimed, China has been constructing militarized and man-made islands in that area. 

However, China’s bellicose actions in the South China Sea region do not seem to rest well with ordinary citizens on the ground, according to a polling analysis published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies that revealed America surpasses China in popularity as well as in soft power in Southeast Asia. 

Among the 10 countries polled, a majority of citizens trusted Washington over Beijing, particularly in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

In April this year, the Philippines decided to boost its military ties with its long-standing ally America, inciting backlash from China that such an alliance should not undermine Chinese security and territorial interests. China has long lambasted America for interfering in the South China Sea region. 

Top U.S. and Philippine defense and diplomatic officials agreed to complete a blueprint for American security assistance to the Philippines for the next five to 10 years, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin divulged. 

During a press conference at a so-called ‘2+2 meeting’ in Washington on April 11 this year, Austin said the longtime allies had talked about the notion of “priority defense platforms,” including radars, drones, military transport aircraft, and coastal and air defense systems. 

Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo said at the same press conference that the two sides had “redoubled” their commitment to overhauling the Philippine-American alliance in wake of the reality that their partnership will have to play a stronger role in preserving a law-based international order.

Experts, including former American defense officials, say America views the Philippines as a potential logistics hub for missiles, rockets and artillery systems to counter a possible Chinese amphibious invasion of the island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims is part of its territory on dubious historical grounds.

Back then, Austin said it was “too early” to discuss what assets the U.S. would deploy on military bases in the Philippines under the recently expanded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Manalo added that the EDCA sites were mainly to boost military interoperability, tackle potential humanitarian disasters, and perhaps “respond to other types of security challenges,” without providing further details. 

The Pentagon did not elaborate on what these additional sites will be used for, except that the work will entail airport expansion and training with naval assets. Manalo said that Washington and Manila would hold future discussions on what exactly the U.S. will use such EDCA sites for. 

April also witnessed a three-week joint army exercise between the Philippines and America, with almost 18,000 military personnel involved in the exercises, which for the first time entailed the firing of live ammunition in the South China Sea.

Called “Balikatan” (shoulder to shoulder), the U.S.-Philippine military exercise is the first of its kind under President Marcos Jr., whose predecessor Rodrigo Duterte prioritized warmer ties with China. 

The army exercise came after China’s naval exercises in the waters around Taiwan as a response to a meeting in the U.S. between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy.

Photo credit: iStock/ Tetiana Strilchuk

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