Philippine wants China out of territorial waters after ship collisions

Chinese vessels rammed into Filipino ships on October 22. The collisions were between a Chinese Coast Guard vessel and a Philippine resupply boat, and a ship of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and a Chinese militia vessel. The two Philippine vessels were enroute to the BRP Sierra Madre for a regular rotation and resupply mission, when they collided with the Chinese vessels.

The BRP Sierra Madre is an old ship aground at the Ayungin Shoal as a symbol to assert the Philippines sovereignty rights in the territory after China occupied the Mischief Reef in the mid-1990s. There is a small Filipino military contingent aboard the ship tasked with monitoring developments in the area. 

According to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), the collisions took place around 6.04 am. It said the “dangerous blocking maneuvers” of China Coast Guard vessel 5203 (CCGV 5203) caused the collision with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)-contracted resupply boat Unaiza May 2 (UM2) approximately 13.5 nautical miles east northeast of the BRP Sierra Madre. The boat was under contract with AFP for the rotation and resupply (RORE) mission. 

Commodore Jay Tarriela of the PCG said they have previously documented four “instances of dangerous maneuvers” by the Chinese Coast Guard against BRP Cabra and BRP Sindangan.

In the latest incident, the two Philippine ships were accompanying civilian ships that had been contracted for the resupply mission.

The NTF-WPFS said the actions of the Chinese vessels were “provocative, irresponsible and illegal”. The task force said the collisions endangered the crew of Unaiza May 2.

Filipino flag and image of Xi Jinping, China’s supreme leader.

Regular joint patrols to guard against Chinese vessels

In the hours that followed reports of the collisions, an independent think-thank has made a strong recommendation that the Philippines activate joint patrols “to deter China’s coercive actions”. Regular joint patrols can be conducted with the United States, Australia, Japan, Canada, South Korea and the European Union.

The Stratbase ADR Institute said the Philippines should implement more decisive measures against the dangerous maneuvers of the Chinese Coast Guard and militia vessels in the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea). 

“Philippine vessels were exercising the country’s legal right to sail the waters of the West Philippine Sea. The Philippine position is absolute and non-negotiable,” the think-thank said in a statement. 

“The safety and well-being of all parties involved in the incident, particularly the crew of the Philippine supply boat and the patrol vessels are of utmost and immediate concern. The dangerous actions taken by the Chinese Coast Guard and the Chinese militia vessel are regarded as provocative, irresponsible, and in violation of international law. 

“The Philippines stands firmly against such actions that imperil the safety and security of those engaged in resupply missions and in the protection of our territorial sovereignty.”

The ADR Institute president Dindo Manhit said the Marcos Jr. administration should use the international recognition brought by the Philippines’ 2016 arbitral victory to assert its rights in the West Philippines Sea (WPS).

“The Marcos Jr. administration must take the lead and prioritize this endeavor. Only by working together can the Philippines successfully assert its right in the WPS,” Manhit said. 

In the meantime, the think tank also slammed what it said was “China’s disinformation campaign” regarding the incident. 

China’s false version of events 

In its statements to international media, China said the Philippines was to blame for the collisions. China foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the Philippines is “in violation of international law, groundlessly attacking and accusing China’s legitimate rights and law enforcement actions”.

Mao said the area of the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) has always been China’s territory.

“Ren’ai Reef is an inseparable part of China’s Nansha Islands geographically, economically, politically and historically,” Mao was quoted as saying. She was referring to the Second Thomas Shoal and Spratly Islands (named Kalayaan Islands by the Philippines).

These public statements placed the fault of the collisions squarely with the Philippines because they sailed “headlong towards Ren’ai Jiao’s (Ayungin) lagoon and bumped dangerously” with Chinese Coast Guard and fishing vessels.

China also urged the Philippines to “stop stirring up trouble and making provocations at sea, stop making dangerous moves, stop groundlessly attacking and slandering China”. 

There have also been reports wherein China accused the Philippine ships of carrying illicit construction materials. Philippine authorities, however, denied the allegation and said the Philippine Coast Guard vessels had cargo meant for the regular maintenance and support of the BRP Sierra Madre.

The ADR Institute said China’s actions represented an utter disregard for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, and the 2016 Arbitral Award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.  

“China’s coercive actions not only undermine the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Philippines but also endanger the lives of Filipinos at sea,” it said.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced October 23 that the Philippines has summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian over the incident, but he was allegedly out of town. Instead, a diplomatic protest note was given to Deputy Chief of Mission Zhou Zhiyong. 

Protestors at a rally against China.

China’s violation of international law

Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra said this latest incident involving Chinese vessels no longer appeared to be an isolated incident or accidental based on the details that had so far surfaced in the media. 

Guevarra said the government must reiterate firmly its stand and “call on China to respect or to rather comply with its obligations under the international law to settle disputes peacefully and to cease and desist from committing any such further acts”.

“We consider what happened as a wrongful international act,” he said. 

Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, however, outrightly denounced China, saying that the Philippines considers the incident as “a blatant violation of international law”. As for China’s version of events, the official said the Chinese government “is deliberately obfuscating the truth.”

“This is a serious escalation of the illegal activities conducted by the Chinese government in the West Philippine Sea and in complete disregard of any norm or convention of international law,” he said. 

President Marcos Jr. has also issued orders for the PCG to lead an investigation into the incident. What happened, he said, is “being taken seriously at the highest level of government”.

Philippine senators were also unanimous in denouncing China. The designated chair of the Senate Special Committee on Philippine Maritime and Admiralty Zones, Sen. Francis Tolentino said China continues to show its disregard for international law and maritime safety.

“This incident should be thoroughly investigated under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the Code for Investigation of Marine Casualties and Incidents, International Maritime Organization.”

Sen. Grace Poe, an independent, said China’s actions “could heighten the tension not only between Philippines and China, but could also be a potential flashpoint in the region.”

She added: “While an immediate diplomatic protest is anticipated, the recent incident calls for a serious rethinking of our strategies in dealing with these acts. As we firmly assert our rights in our waters, fortifying our relations with like-minded states must continue to thwart similar belligerent actions.”

International support for the Philippines 

Already, members of the international community have declared their support for the Philippines over this latest incident.

The Japanese Embassy, in a statement, stated the issue was directly related to the peace and stability of the region and was a legitimate concern of the international community including Japan. 

“Japan opposes any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force as well as any actions that increase tensions in the South China Sea. As stated in the Japan-Philippines Joint Statement in February 2023, the Government of Japan concurs with the Philippines’ long-standing objections to unlawful maritime claims, militarization, coercive activities and threat or use of force in the South China Sea.” 

The Embassy of France said that it “calls for respect of the freedom of navigation guaranteed by international law and recalls its attachment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the decision rendered by the Arbitral Court on July 12, 2016.”

The U.S. embassy said it will implement its obligations under the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. 

Article IV of the agreement extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, and aircraft, including those of its Coast Guard, anywhere in the South China Sea.

All photos credit: Ina Silverio

Top photo: Protestors want China out of West Philippine Sea.

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