By Luis Liwanag and Dennis Jay Santos
Two Chinese survey ships were spotted at a Philippine-claimed feature in the South China Sea last week while Beijing’s coast-guard has maintained a presence in the disputed waters through rotations, the Filipino navy chief said Monday, adding his forces were under orders to avoid confrontation.
The survey ships explored for about one week near Reed Bank, an area within Manila’s exclusive economic zone, Vice Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo told the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).
“Our forces in the Western Command are trying to confirm what the Chinese vessels were doing in the area,” he said during his first virtual forum with reporters since becoming the Philippine Navy’s top commander in January. “We will submit a report to higher headquarters and request the foreign affairs’ department to protest the illegal activity of the Chinese.”
At any one time, he said, there could be as many as six China Coast Guard ships and fishing boats off Scarborough Shoal or in waters near Mischief Reef – other features of the contested waterway claimed by Manila.
“That is normally the trend,” Bacordo said, emphasizing that the navy has been avoiding direct confrontation with Chinese ships, and instead been passing reports on to the Department of Foreign Affairs so that diplomacy could take its course.
“What I am saying is that our option is a diplomatic protest. Options that may lead to armed confrontations should be avoided,” he added.
The Philippines, he said, would keep adhering to a 2002 deal struck between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whereby the signatories agreed to refrain from actions that could inflame tensions in the South China Sea.
China, Taiwan and four ASEAN members – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – have overlapping claims to the potentially resource-rich maritime region.
Other countries like the United States, Australia and Japan are not parties to the non-binding 2002 agreement, but the Philippines has committed to “exercising restraint,” Bacordo said.
“Our guiding principle here is the adherence to the rule of law, so what the president and the secretary of national defense pronounced is consistent to this 2002 document,” he said.
In July 2016, soon before President Rodrigo Duterte took office, the Philippines won an international arbitration that rejected China’s historical claims to most of the South China Sea. But rather than enforce the ruling, Duterte tried to appease Beijing, which agreed to normalize diplomatic and business relations with Manila.
Duterte has also said that his country is powerless against Beijing. The president recently reiterated that the Philippines would be militarily weak in confronting Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, and that it did not want to provoke a fight with other countries.
According to Bacordo, this does not mean that the Philippine Navy would stop patrolling its maritime territory, even though he acknowledged that such patrols would be confined to the country’s exclusive economic zone so as not to “escalate tensions in that area.”
Features like Scarborough Shoal and Reed Bank lie within the Philippine EEZ.
“What the president was saying is that options that will lead to a shooting war with China should be avoided,” he said.
In recent weeks, China and the United States have conducted naval maneuvers and exercises in the South China Sea, while engaging in a war of words over the waterway, after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Beijing’s sweeping claims there illegal.
Last month, the U.S. deployed two aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan, along with their strike groups to the South China Sea. The deployment, the first in several years, followed a Chinese military exercise around the disputed Paracel islands.
Duterte, meanwhile, has ordered the Philippine military not to join other countries in naval exercises in international waters of the sea beyond “the 12-mile distance from our shores,” according to Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
Chinese vessels maintain a regular presence in the disputed waters by rotating duties among themselves, Vice Admiral Bacordo explained.
“When they leave, newer vessels take over. So it’s like a guard, you are relieved of your duties, but another one takes over,” he said.
As much as possible, he said, Philippine naval personnel are ordered to restrain themselves because “the first one to shoot becomes the loser.”
“We have to be patient with that,” he said, referring to the need to resist provocative actions by Chinese ships. “Again, the first one to fire the shot loses public support and I am sure they will want us to take the first shot. But we will not.”