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‘Rocket Showdown’: Philippines Furious With China Over Unacceptable Swarming Of PLA Vessels In South China Sea

The Philippines’ Defense Chief, on December 14, strongly criticized recent Chinese incursions in disputed waters in the South China Sea (SCS) as an ‘unacceptable’ action that violated the country’s sovereignty.

Senior Undersecretary Jose Faustino Jr, officer-in-charge of the Philippines’ Department of National Defense (DND), said there was “great concern” over the “reported swarming of Chinese vessels in Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.”

West Philippine Sea is Manila’s term for the eastern part of the South China Sea (SCS) that lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) but overlaps with China’s nine-dash line claims in the SCS.

As per the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal states are allotted 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) EEZ from their shores.

In 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague dismissed China’s nine-dash line claims in the South China Sea and ruled that the Philippines has sovereign rights over the waters within its EEZ. However, Beijing does not recognize this ruling.

Photo courtesy: AFP Western Command/Maj. Cherryl Tindog
Chinese vessels around the eastern part of Escoda (Sabina) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea. (Armed Forces of the Philippines)

Chinese Vessels Amassed In The Philippine EEZ

Faustino’s remarks came after a Philippine military commander confirmed last week the presence of Chinese vessels believed to be operated by militias in the Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal since early this year.

“I confirm the swarming presence of Chinese fishing vessels in Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal since early this year,” Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, the senior military officer who watches over the Kalayaan Island Group in the West Philippine Sea, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Iroquois Reef is 237 kilometers from Palawan’s Rizal town and 148 kilometers southwest of Recto (Reed) Bank. This area is rich in oil and gas, and China intends to conduct a joint exploration with the Philippines within the country’s EEZ.

However, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said earlier this month that the government was considering other ways to explore, as the previous government terminated talks with Beijing over joint energy exploration, citing constitutional constraints and issues of sovereignty.

“That’s the roadblock. It is hard to see how we can resolve that. I think there might be other ways, so it does not have to be G-to-G (government-to-government),” Marcos said.

Marcos’ remarks came after his foreign affairs secretary, Enrique Manalo, asserted in August that any joint energy exploration must comply with Philippine laws while stating that Manila was open to new talks with China on oil and gas exploration.

Faustino reiterated the same position on December 14 by saying, “Our lines remain open to dialogue,” however, “we maintain that activities which violate our sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction, and undermine the peace and stability of the region, are unacceptable.”

According to satellite images reviewed by Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), Chinese ships had a constant presence at Iroquois Reef throughout the 12 months ending in September 2022, ranging from two to almost 30 vessels.

According to Philippine media reports, these Chinese militia vessels pose as fishing boats but are actually deployed by China to enforce its territorial claims in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. Sometimes these vessels are deployed with the China Coast Guard (CCG).

A fisherman from Palawan told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that he saw nearly 30 Chinese vessels at Iroquois Reef during a 10-day trip to the West Philippine Sea in late September.

“They just loitered there, and they did not seem to be fishing,” the fisherman said.

Philippine Lawmakers Condemn China

Hours after Faustino’s remarks, Philippine senators passed a resolution expressing disgust at China over an encounter between the Philippine Navy and the Chinese Coast Guard at sea on November 20, off the coast of the Philippine-administered Thitu Island, which is also a part of the Spratly archipelago.

According to claims by the Philippine government, a Chinese coast guard vessel forcefully retrieved Chinese rocket debris that the Philippine Navy found floating off the coast of Thitu Island.

Chinese Coast Guard vessel

The Chinese vessel allegedly blocked a Philippine naval boat twice before taking the debris it was towing off Thitu Island.

Notably, the incident occurred the same week US Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Philippines and reiterated support for Manila in the event of an armed attack in the SCS.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila said that the Philippine side had returned the object to China “after friendly consultation”; however, a video played by Philippine Senator Francis Tolentino during his speech showed otherwise.

The video circulating on social media also shows a Philippine Navy rubber boat towing rocket debris back to shore, but Chinese Coast Guard personnel on a larger inflatable boat come in and cut the towing line.

A Philippine Navy officer is also seen calling out to the Chinese Coast Guard personnel in broken English to stop them, but they respond and proceed to collect the rocket debris.

“These actions… are slowly but surely eroding Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea and harming the country’s strategic position,” said Senator Tolentino.

Later, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri motioned to adopt a resolution to express the Senate’s “disgust on what had transpired in this particular incident,” in response to which the Senate unanimously voted “yes.”

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