No let-up in China’s domination of South China Sea

On Friday, November 10, dozens of Chinese coast guard and accompanying ships pursued and surrounded Philippine vessels in a tense face-off in one of the riskiest flashpoints in the South China Sea.

During Friday’s four-hour confrontation, a Chinese coast guard ship fired a water cannon toward a Philippine motorboat transporting food and other supplies to Filipino forces onboard a marooned, rusting warship, the BRP Sierra Madre, which functions as the country’s territorial outpost at Second Thomas Shoal.

Notably, members of the press, including two Associated Press (AP) journalists, were with the Filipino ships where they witnessed the Chinese aggression.

There are concerns that the repeated bilateral clashes at Second Thomas Shoal, which is situated within Philippine’s exclusive economic zone but is claimed by China and encircled by its flotilla, could catalyze a military conflict with the U.S., the Philippines’ ally, having to step in against China.

While Philippine officials declared on November 11, that they would not do anything that would spark off a larger conflict, they maintained they would not hesitate to safeguard their country’s sovereign rights in the South China Sea. 

The same day, the Philippines’ coast guard also declared it would still maintain its regular supply missions to troops in the South China Sea even though it anticipates more Chinese vessels in that area.

Unveiling China’s aggression

The Philippines frequently dispatches supplies to a handful of troops living aboard the BRP Sierra Madre at the atoll, known by Filipinos as Ayungin and called Ren’ai Jiao by Beijing.

Notwithstanding Chinese assertive maneuvers, the Philippine contingent on November 10 succeeded in transporting supplies to the Filipino marines aboard the BRP Sierra Madre without incident. 

Donated by the U.S. the BRP Sierra Madre has been disintegrating as time goes by but is still actively commissioned, implying that an armed assault by China would be regarded by Manila as an act of war.

Filipino forces would continue to adhere to the rule of law and would not be provoked by China’s strong-arm tactics, Philippine coast guard Commodore Tarriela said.

“Regardless of how dangerous the maneuver that they’re going to throw at us, whether they use water cannons, whether they use military-grade lasers, we are not going to allow them to make Philippine coast guard personnel on board our vessels to escalate the tensions,” Tarriela said.

At least 38 Chinese ships were detected in Second Thomas Shoal’s vicinity on November 10, including a Chinese navy fast assault craft and a hospital ship, the Philippine coast guard revealed.

Although one of the Philippine coast guard ships, the BRP Cabra, was encircled five times by the Chinese coast guard and other ships, it succeeded in distancing itself until it was hemmed in near the shoal.

“We grow more confident each time we steer past through the Chinese blockades,” the Cabra’s commander, Emmanuel Dangate, told AP. “We feel all the more the need by all to follow the international regulations to prevent collisions.”

The campaign to unveil China’s aggression at sea would remain, Tarriela said in a news conference, where photographs, video and drone shots of the November 10 clashes were displayed.

“I believe that our effort in transparency initiatives has been very successful in rallying support from the international community to condemn the illegal actions of China and to make the Filipino people aware of what’s happening,” Tarriela said.

Washington responded to Chinese actions by maintaining that it supported the Philippines, its oldest ally in Asia “in the face of the People’s Republic of China’s repeated harassment in the South China Sea.”

In a previous incident, the Philippines summoned the Chinese ambassador on October 23, over a collision between Chinese vessels and Philippine ships in the South China Sea, and said that it will not be daunted in protecting its sovereignty claims in the contested waters.  

“Let our people know, and the rest of the world, that this incident will not deter us from doing what is right, what is for the benefit of our people, and what will support and strengthen the rules-based international order. No unlawful force will soften our firm resolve,” said Colonel Medel Aguilar, a spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, at a press briefing.

Beijing and Manila exchanged barbs on October 22 after their ships collided while the Philippines was sending supplies to troops stationed on the BRP Sierra Madre.

The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs summoned the Chinese ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian to file a diplomatic protest against Beijing over the incident.  

As Huang was out of town at that time, the deputy chief of mission Zhou Zhiyong met foreign affairs assistant secretary Aileen Mendiola-Rau instead.

The Chinese Embassy said Zhou told the Philippines “to take seriously China’s grave concerns, honor its promise, stop making provocations at sea, stop making dangerous moves, stop groundlessly attacking and slandering China, and to tow away the illegally ‘grounded’ warship as soon as possible.”

China stakes claims over almost whole of South China Sea

Jonathan Malaya, a spokesman for the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, said the Philippines will continue providing for its troops based at Second Thomas Shoal, even as China continues to step up its activities against Filipino vessels.

“We will supply our troops in Ayungin Shoal no matter the overwhelming odds… because this is the Philippines implementing the 2016 arbitral ruling,” Malaya said at the briefing.

The Chinese Embassy lambasted the Philippines for trespassing on its territory, and decrying them for intentionally causing the collisions to “make faults with China and escalate the current situation.”

Maritime security expert Collin Koh from Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said China was attempting to spin an alternative narrative, after it rapidly published a statement and videos to refute the Philippines’ accusations.

Dr Koh said: “It’s concerned that the existing narrative is against its favor in the international community and hence, it’s trying to push the agenda of portraying the Philippines as an aggressor egged on by Washington. 

“We are so far still seeing what can be termed horizontal escalation – intensifying existing measures with ramped-up tactical moves such as in this case, actively trying to block the resupply mission.” 

Earlier in October, the Philippines reported at least two incidents when Chinese vessels trailed its ships that were part of routine supply missions to its Second Thomas Shoal outpost.

Defense analyst Don McLain Gill, a lecturer at De La Salle University in Manila, portrayed China’s actions against the Philippines in October alone as a “quick escalation”. 

The Philippine government has decided to respond to Chinese actions by quickly publicizing these encounters.

“Manila must continue to publicize broadcasts of Chinese assertions to ensure that Beijing’s efforts to simultaneously alter the status quo narrative through disinformation campaigns will be pushed back,” Gill said.

Countries such as the U.S, Canada, Germany, Japan and Australia have denounced China’s actions against the Philippines. For example, Washington reminded Beijing that its Mutual Defense Treaty with Manila could be invoked should an armed attack happen in the South China Sea.

“We stand with our #FriendsPartnersAllies in protecting Philippine sovereignty and in support of a #FreeAndOpenIndoPacific,” U.S. ambassador to the Philippines Mary Kay Carlson posted on X, in a display of support for the Philippines. 

In May, the Pentagon said it would defend the Philippines if its coast guard came under attack “anywhere in the South China Sea”.

Likewise, the Canadian and Japanese embassies in Manila also voiced their backing for the Philippines and concerns over the collision. The EU’s ambassador, Luc Veron, also declared that “these incidents, their repetition and intensification are dangerous and very disturbing”.

Manila’s ties with Beijing have taken a nosedive under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who has enhanced his country’s military engagement with Washington since assuming power in 2022.

Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, including parts of the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. 

Although the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 ruled that China’s claims has no legal basis, Beijing refused to acknowledge this ruling. Rather, it has stepped up its military presence and artificial island-building activities in the disputed sea.

Photo credit: iStock/ aytugaskin. Stock image of a navigation officer with binoculars.

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