By J.C. Gotinga
The Philippines issued a strongly worded protest Thursday over the Chinese coast guard’s reported firing of water cannons to block a Filipino resupply mission to a military outpost at a reef in the South China Sea, calling the action “illegal.”
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said he had filed a protest in response to an incident on Tuesday around the Second Thomas Shoal – or Ayungin Shoal as Manila calls it – which lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“I have conveyed in the strongest terms to His Excellency, Huang Xilian, Ambassador of China, and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing our outrage, condemnation and protest of the incident,” Locsin said in a statement.
“The acts of the Chinese coast guard vessels are illegal. China has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas. They must heed and back off,” Locsin said, adding that supply missions to Second Thomas Shoal would continue.
“We do not ask permission to do what we need to do in our territory,” Locsin said.
China Coast Guard ships blocked and fired water cannons on two Philippine supply ships transporting food to military personnel stationed in Ayungin, Locsin said, citing military incident reports.
“Fortunately, no one was hurt,” the top Filipino diplomat said.
“I reminded China that a public vessel is covered by the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty,” Locsin added.
Under the 1951 treaty, U.S. troops would come to its ally’s aid in case of foreign aggression – including in the South China Sea, as top American defense officials affirmed recently.
The Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged atoll in the Spratlys Islands, is claimed by China, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Since 1999, the Philippines has maintained a Marine detachment there aboard a World War II-era warship, the BRP Sierra Madre (pictured), deliberately grounded on the reef to serve as an outpost.
Locsin reiterated that the shoal is part of the Kalayaan Island group, the portion of the Spratlys that Manila claims as part of its territory. The island group is “an integral part of the Philippines,” its EEZ and continental shelf.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, who heads a national task force for the West Philippine Sea, said that two Chinese coast guard vessels blocked the Filipino ships while a third fired water cannons for an hour. The West Philippine Sea is Manila’s name for its territories in the South China Sea.
“They maneuvered but had to abort their resupply mission,” Esperon told reporters, referring to the Filipino ships.
He also noted an “unusual movement” of Chinese ships near the shoal during the past week as Philippine spotters monitored about 19 Chinese militia vessels in the area. Elsewhere, about 45 ships have been spotted near Pag-asa, an island also known as Thitu, in the past year.
“So they are very aggressive. We are protesting that because that’s part of our EEZ, and those are low-tide elevations. Nobody is supposed to be there. It is within our EEZ,” he said.
Chinese ships have in the past attempted to block resupply missions to the Second Thomas Shoal by chasing and harassing Philippine boats. This week’s incident was the first time in years that Philippine authorities reported that Chinese vessels used water cannons against Filipino ships.
China used a similar tactic in a 2014 incident near Scarborough Shoal against Filipino fishermen, the military told foreign correspondents at the time.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to telephone calls seeking comment.
In Hanoi on Thursday, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement responding to the news about the incident off the Second Thomas Shoal.
“Vietnam urges all relevant sides to adhere to international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) in all their activities in the South China Sea, avoid actions that could complicate the situation and strive to maintain peace, security, stability and maritime order in the region,” said Le Thi Thu Hang, spokeswoman for the ministry.
In April, reports surfaced that Chinese navy warships had chased a civilian boat carrying a Philippine news crew near the shoal.
China’s recently enacted Coast Guard Law authorizes the use of aggressive tactics on what it considers intruders in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims in nearly its entirety.
However, a 2016 ruling by an international arbitral tribunal invalidated the sweeping “nine-dash line” claim of Beijing and affirmed Manila’s sovereign rights to a 200-nautical mile EEZ in the sea.
Earlier this year, Manila and Beijing became embroiled in a diplomatic spat after the Philippine military reported the presence of about 200 Chinese ships it believed to be maritime militias near Whitsun Reef, also within the Philippine EEZ.
The ships lingered in different parts of the EEZ for months, prompting Manila to deploy more military, coast guard and other government ships.
Despite these provocations from China, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has refrained from directly calling out or criticizing Beijing, which he considers a “friend.”
Under his administration, Manila has sought closer ties with Beijing and taken a softer tone when addressing the South China Sea dispute. He claims to have sealed an agreement with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on ships’ access to the Philippine EEZ.
While the effectiveness of the diplomatic notes is yet to be seen, they may indicate that Manila “has become more open in their intention of how to deal with Beijing,” according to Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.
“The wind is changing in the Philippines approach,” said Viet Hoang, a well-known Vietnamese South China Sea analyst.
Joint marine research
Meanwhile, Vietnam and the Philippines have agreed to resume a joint marine scientific research expedition that had been halted since 2007, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced this week.
According to a statement from the department issued on Wednesday, the Philippines-Vietnam Joint Permanent Working Group on Maritime and Ocean Concerns met last week to discuss “various initiatives for science-based cooperation” and also maritime security cooperation.
The last such event took place in 2019.
The DFA said “upholding the rule of the law in the South China Sea and the revival of the joint marine scientific research expedition were among the highlights” of the group.
“Joint maritime activities between Vietnam and the Philippines were suspended during President (Rodrigo) Duterte’s term mainly because the President wanted to foster a strong relationship with China,” Viet, the analyst, said.
“But since Duterte’s term is nearing its end, Philippines seeks to expand cooperation with other countries, especially the U.S.,” he said, adding that “Vietnam should seize this opportunity to bring forward bilateral maritime projects with the Philippines.”
Jojo Riñoza in Dagupan, Philippines, contributed to this report.