Philippines continues to defy China over South China Sea conflict

In recent months, there was an uptick in China using water cannon attacks against defiant Filipino civilian-led supply boats to the disputed South China Sea, known locally as West Philippine Sea, and tensions are heating up on the diplomatic front between China and the Philippines. China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea.

In mid-May, Philippine national security adviser Eduardo Ano is demanding that the government expel Chinese diplomats from the country over an alleged leak of a phone conversation between a Filipino admiral and a Chinese diplomat regarding an agreement on the West Philippine Sea, where US$3 trillion worth of trade passes through annually. Media reports stated they were recorded discussing the conflict and that there was a transcript showing how the admiral has agreed to concessions with China.

According to the transcript published by the Manila Times, the admiral agreed to China’s proposal of a “new model”, where the Philippines will use fewer boats in resupply trips to its navy officers guarding the various shoals and to notify Beijing in advance regarding any future missions.

Chinese officials have not denied responsibility for leaking the recording. Lin Jian, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said Chinese diplomats assigned to the Philippines should be allowed to do their work. In a press briefing held in Beijing, Lin was quoted as saying the Philippines should protect the normal performance of duties by Chinese diplomatic personnel, as well as to “stop infringing and provoking, and refrain from denying the facts”.

On May 15, Atin Ito (It is Ours), an alliance of various civilian groups defending the sovereignty of the Philippines in the disputed West Philippines Sea, launched a second resupply mission in Zambales. Atin Ito leaders said the mission was a success as it penetrated the Chinese Coast Guard’s barrier at the vicinity of the Bajo de Masinloc (Panatag Shoal) on May 16.

Four main vessels, which ferried Atin Ito volunteers and members of the media, and around 100 small fishing boats went to the boundary of the municipal waters and the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in Zambales.

“We were able to supply 1,000 liters of fuel and 200 food packs. This mission is a resounding success because we reached not only the vicinity of Bajo de Masinloc but also the Scarborough shoal,” a volunteer said in a video posted on Atin Ito’s FB page. 

The group was also able to place symbolic West Philippine Sea markers within the EEZ. In addition to resupplying the navy officers, they also distributed supplies, including fuel and food packs, to Filipino fisherfolk working in the area who have long been negatively affected by China’s massive, and what Philippine authorities considered to be illegal blockade.  

After the April trilateral summit at the White House among the U.S., Japan and Philippine leaders, China stepped up attacks in a relentless campaign to assert ownership over the West Philippine Sea.

In a typical attack on March 23, the China Coast Guard fired water cannons against the Philippine boat Unaizah May 4 as it was passing through Ayungin Shoal.  The water blasts lasted for an hour, rendering the Unaizah powerless to move and injuring several crew members. In videos aired over Filipino news channels, the crew could be heard pleading for the water blasts to stop.

On March 5, Chinese coast guard ships attempted to ram the Unaizah, which was carrying supplies for members of the Philippine Navy deployed to guard the shoal. China retorted that the water cannon attacks were “justified, legal and professional” because the Philippines was “impinging on Chinese territory”.

“The actions taken on the scene were justified, lawful, professional, restrained, and beyond reproach. China urges the Philippines to immediately stop infringing on China’s sovereignty and rights and stop the provocations. If the Philippines does not change course, China will continue to take resolute steps to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,” Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Lin Jian said.

Civilian groups defending the sovereignty of the Philippines in the disputed West Philippines Sea.

civilian groups defending the sovereignty of the Philippines in the disputed West Philippines Sea

A Chinese coast guard ship and Filipino fisherman.

More acts of aggression to continue

Analysts said China has become more aggressive in asserting its claim. China earlier this year sent 27 ships for a major maritime militia rotation. This was reported by American maritime security expert Ray Powell on January 21. Powell is from the Project Myoushu, Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, Stanford University.

“China has a major maritime militia rotation underway across the South China Sea, with at least 27 Qiong Sansha Yu-class ships deploying south into the Spratly Islands and east to Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal,” Powell posted on X. 

China is using bullying tactics to stake its claim, including parts also being claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China has no basis for its claims under international law. Instead of retreating, China resorted to extensive land reclamation on some islands in the disputed area, and has built air force and other military facilities on them.

In the last three months, the Philippine Navy has monitored the presence of 200 militia ships, 10 to 15 warships, and 10 to 15 coast guard ships in different reefs in the disputed area.

Disinformation campaign

Observers said China is also engaged in a disinformation campaign. According to the Philippine Center Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), China is using agents deployed in the Philippines to spread false and pro-China narratives on social media. In a PCIJ report, Jonathan Malaya, assistant director general, National Security Council, was quoted as saying there was already a Chinese information operation in the Philippines and that there were Filipinos parroting China’s arguments online and undermining the Philippines’ sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea.

After the March water cannon attack, some Filipino Facebook pages posted a drone video showing a Chinese coast guard ship firing water cannons at Philippine boats, but only hitting the ocean, not the boats.

Jose Torres Jr, director general, Philippine Information Agency, in a press conference said China’s disinformation campaign comprised several themes: the possibility of an outright war between China and the Philippines; the joint security activities of the Philippines and the U.S. that was prompting China’s increased acts of aggression, and the U.S.’ operations to manipulate the Philippines, among them.

“China is pushing these offensive campaigns of disinformation by paying trolls from China, as well as hiring Filipinos to spread false narratives,” Torres said.

Filipino fishermen at the disputed West Philippines Sea.

Fabricated videos

A senator is also calling for investigations on the said disinformation campaign. In his Resolution No. 910, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada wants to look into what he said was the proliferation of the said reports.

“It is important to determine and assess the reach and machineries behind the disinformation campaign. This will help in formulating policies and strategies to address the matter, dismantle the network of fake news peddlers, and overcome its adverse impact,” Estrada said.

Estrada is the chairperson of the Senate Committee on National Defense and Security. He pointed out that the U.S. State Department mentioned in its September 28, 2023 report that China has allocated billions of dollars annually for its disinformation and censorship tactics to cultivate biased information.

“While the defense establishment is already monitoring and countering the false narratives perpetrated about the WPS, the anti-fake news campaign requires a whole-of-government and whole-of-nation approach involving citizen empowerment and education in order to become truly effective,” he said

China has also taken to accusing Filipino journalists of fabricating reports and manipulated videos. For instance, state-run media Xinhua News questioned the presence of journalists during the fishing trips of local Filipino fisherfolk.

“Since when have professional cameras become essential fishing gear?” it said on X.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying directly accused Philippine journalists of taking videos to “manipulate them.”

“Each time the Philippines delivered supplies to the grounded warship, they had many journalists on board and had them manipulate the videos they recorded to make sensational news and project the Philippines as a victim,” she wrote on X.

Media groups rebutted the accusation. The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines called it a “barefaced lie” and an insult to the integrity of journalists.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines also slammed Hua’s charge. It said that the Philippine media is a non-party to the conflict and that that state actors should not interfere with editorial decisions.

“The media is not a party to the dispute and should not be demonized by parties for airing contending views on the issue and unflattering reports on incidents in the West Philippine Sea,” the group said in a statement.

The Defense Press Corps of the Philippines pointed out that the journalists who joined the fishing or supply missions, risked their lives “in the face of unwanted aggression to bring the unvarnished truth to light. It is unfortunate some would still call the work of these independent Filipino journalists as manipulated sensationalism. We reject and condemn this false accusation.”

Continued resistance

The conflict over ownership and control over the West Philippine Sea will not end soon. On May 16, Philippine officials who flew to Pag-asa island in the Kalayaan group of islands in Palawan experienced a taste of China’s bullying when they were met with verbal challenges on the radio to leave. Philippine senate president Miguel Zubiri and defense secretary Gilbert Teodoro flew to the island to witness the groundbreaking ceremony for a barracks for the Philippine Navy.  

While there, they saw around 20 Chinese militia vessels moving around the vicinity of the island, which outnumbered the Philippine Navy ship and a single Philippine Coast Guard vessel.

“If they think that a radio challenge can scare us away from our own waters, then they don’t know what they’re dealing with. We know – the whole world knows – that it is China that is encroaching on the territory of the Philippines. We are prepared to fight for what is ours,” Zubiri said.

 Zubiri said the planned construction of the barracks and a separate building for health services on the island will bolster their presence and help prevent illegal incursions of China into Philippine waters. He was joined by several Philippine Navy officer including newly-appointed Western Command chief, Rear Admiral Alfonso Torres.

The Philippine government on May 17 has agreed to buy from Japan five coast guard patrol ships in a trade agreement valued at over US$400 million.

All photos credit: Akabayan PartyList

Top photo: Filipino fishermen holding Philippine national flag.

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