Sino-Philippine tensions in South China Sea remain heated in wake of Chinese aggression

The Philippine military insisted that China halt its “dangerous and offensive” activities in waters in the South China Sea located inside the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, after a Chinese navy ship shadowed and tried to cross in front of a Philippine navy vessel staging a resupply mission on October 13. 

In a latest incident, Chinese ships collided with Filipino vessels on a resupply mission to BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal on October 22. Philippine’s National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) said a China Coast Guard vessel collided with an Armed Forces of the Philippines-contracted indigenous resupply boat while a Philippine Coast Guard vessel was bumped by a Chinese Maritime Militia vessel. 

The NTF-WPS condemned China’s actions as “provocative, irresponsible and illegal” as the incident “imperiled the safety of the crew” of the Filipino boats, and stated that the collision was a violation of Philippine sovereignty, rights, and jurisdiction, in “utter blatant disregard” of several international laws including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 Arbitral Award against China.

On October 13, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel came as close as 350 yards (320 meters) as it tried to cut off the Philippine resupply ship near Thitu island, Manila’s largest and most strategically significant outpost in the South China Sea, based on statements by Philippines armed forces chief Romeo Brawner.

“These dangerous and offensive maneuvers by China’s PLAN not only risk collision but also directly endanger the lives of maritime personnel from both sides,” Brawner declared in a statement on Sunday, October 15. 

On October 16, China asserted sovereignty and justified its presence near Thitu, which it regarded as Zhongye Island.

“The Philippine side’s illegal occupation of Zhongye Island has seriously violated China’s sovereignty,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning posited during a regular press conference. “It is reasonable and lawful for Chinese warships to patrol the waters near Zhongye Island.”

In September, the Philippine Coast Guard removed the anchor to a floating barrier installed by China’s coast guard to prevent Filipino fishing boats from entering a lagoon in a contested shoal in the South China Sea.

Philippine officials slammed China’s setting up of the 300-meter (980-foot-long) barrier at the entrance to the lagoon at Scarborough Shoal as a breach of international law and violation of the country’s sovereignty. Manila’s move to remove the anchor showcased heightening Philippine attempts to combat China’s increasing pugilism in the region.

“The decisive action of the Philippine Coast Guard to remove the barrier aligns with international law and the Philippines’ sovereignty over the shoal,” the Coast Guard announced and also said it “remains committed to upholding international law, safeguarding the welfare of Filipino fisherfolk and protecting the rights of the Philippines in its territorial waters.”

Philippine National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano declared that “the placement by the People’s Republic of China of a barrier violates the traditional fishing rights of our fishermen.”

The Chinese barrier deprived Filipinos access to the rich fishing lagoon containing plenty of underwater coral outcrops, Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela said.

“It’s an illegal and illegitimate action coming from the People’s Republic of China,” Tarriela told reporters. “Definitely it affects our food security.”

The Philippines asserts that Scarborough Shoal falls within its exclusive economic zone, a 200-nautical mile (370-kilometer) stretch of water where coastal states have exclusive access to fish and other resources.

Those rights were maintained by a 2016 arbitration decision established according to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Ano contended. 

The same arbitral tribunal adjudicated that key component of China’s claim, including its nine-dash line and recent land reclamation activities, were illegal. 

Beijing dismissed the 2016 arbitration ruling as “null and void”, and persists in breaching it. 

In many instances, Chinese Coast Guard ships have prevented Philippine government vessels delivering supplies and personnel to Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal, resulting in near-collisions that the Philippine government has condemned and protested.

While the phrase nine-dash line is usually used outside of China, this term is seldom featured in state-controlled Chinese media. Research by David Bandurski of the China Media Project in Hong Kong found that through July 12 of 2016, the phrase was only utilized in six articles in the People’s Daily, the propaganda outlet of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After the tribunal’s judgment was made, state media began a campaign to justify China’s maritime claims, as indicated by the phrase “not one (dash) less.”

Under President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the Philippines has ramped up rhetoric and actions to safeguard its claim to shoals in the South China Sea, giving rise to various clashes with Chinese vessels in waters off the Philippine islands.

“These recent incidents in the past year shows that China has become increasingly aggressive and confident in its actions against smaller countries like the Philippines. They’re beginning to cross certain lines,” said Jay Batongbacal, a maritime specialist at the University of the Philippines.

The Philippine Coast Guard has proclaimed that it remains “committed to upholding international law, safeguarding the welfare of Filipino fisherfolk, and protecting the rights of the Philippines in its territorial waters.”

Notably, the South China Sea is broadly regarded as a possible crossroads for global conflicts, with recent standoffs between Manila and Beijing raising fears among Western observers of potentially developing into a global faceoff if China, a global power, decides to increase its military assertiveness against the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally.

Washington and Manila are bound by a mutual defense treaty inked in 1951 that remains in force, stipulating that both sides would help protect each other if either were assaulted by a third party.

For his part, Marcos has boosted his country’s relations with the U.S., which had deteriorated under his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, with the two allies now planning for potential future joint patrols in the South China Sea.

As both the U.S. and the Philippines conducted their largest military exercises in April 2023, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs cautioned that U.S.-Philippine military cooperation “must not interfere in South China Sea disputes”.

The U.S., however, has denounced China’s recent actions in the disputed waters and pledged to intervene under its mutual defense treaty obligations if China attacked Philippine vessels. 

“The increasingly frequent run-ins between China and the Philippines speak to the new Marcos government’s willingness to stand up to Chinese bullying and coercion,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

“Part of that is certainly attributable to the closer U.S.-Philippines alliance which helps give Manila the confidence that Beijing will be deterred from overt military force lest it invoke the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.”

China’s wide-ranging claims in the disputed South China Sea waters – which include sovereignty claims over land parcels and their adjacent waters – have incensed other countries like Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.

These other countries have claimed some islands and various zones in the sea as their own, such as the Paracels and the Spratlys. A good barometer of Vietnam’s concern about China has been its ambitious move to enlarge outposts in the Spratly Islands. In the second half of 2022, Vietnam used dredging and landfill to expand four features — Namyit Island, Pearson Reef, Sand Cay, and Tennent Reef — by a total 420 acres.

With China engaged in dangerous and escalatory encounters with those of other states regularly throughout 2022, the situation in the region has been unstable and will likely continue to remain so, ceteris paribus. 

Photo credit: iStock/ Tomas Ragina

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