CHINA THREAT RAISES TENSIONS TO NEW HIGH; American troops ‘battle ready;’ PHL eyes defense pact with Japan, Canada, others

By ALFRED GABOT, Editor in Chief, and CLAIRE MORALES TRUE, Managing Editor

 MANILA/WASHINGTON – Amid serious threat from China to retaliate against United States over the downing of its “spy balloons” and the blinding laser attack by the Chinese Coast Guard on the Philippine Coast Guard on its way to Ayungin Shoal within its territory or the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, the Philippine military and the American troops have started gearing up for possible “confrontation” in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea.

 Sources said American troops are “battle ready” especially in the Indo Pacific region as its US Navy 7th Fleet started its patrol in South China Sea to ensure free and peaceful navigation and travel by air, the area being the passageway of one of the biggest goods in the world.

American forces and their allies in Asia are ready for battle after years of joint combat exercises, said Maj. Gen. Joseph Ryan, Commanding General of the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division based in Hawaii, following a visit in Manila.
Treaty allies like the Philippines, Japan and Australia, among others, “have shown that they will band together, that they will not stand for aggression from these nations that have decided they want to change the world order out here,” said Maj. Gen. Ryan in an AP report.
“I’m personally very buoyed by what I see by our allies and partners in this region and the way we’ve come together in response to aggression by the PRC, by North Korea to say, ‘We will not let that stand,’” Ryan said in the report.

Ryan was the latest of US officials, including in the defense and state departments, and the military to  visit Manila partly for talks with Philippine counterparts ahead of two annual largescale combat exercises in the Philippines.

 The Philippine troops, meanwhile, are gearing up its biggest war games in years this April under the Balikatan exercises with the Americans and observer nations like Japan, South Korea and Australia, among others.

 Aware of the China threat, President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. started talks with Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Korea for possible signing of Mutual Defense Treaty, Visiting Forces Agreement or Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement just like its defense and security pact with the United States.

Also, Mr. Marcos summoned in Malacanang China’s Ambassador in Manila Huang Xilian following the filing of diplomatic protest by the Department of Foreign Affairs. Marcos expressed to the Chinese envoy his serious concern over the increasing frequency and intensity of actions by China against the Philippine Coast Guard and our Filipino fishermen in their bancas, the latest of which was the deployment of a military grade laser against our Coast Guard vessels.

China said the laser attack was made by the Chinese Coast Guard trying to protect China territory, stressing the Ayungin Shoal is part of its territory.

Several   countries led by the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, South Korea and Germany denounced China for the military grade laser attack on Philippine territory, saying it is provocation and violation of international laws, including the arbitrary tribunal win by the Philippines in its dispute against China.

Marcos said he was open to defense pacts with  Japan during his meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister in Tokyo as well as with other countries.

“We call on China to comply with its obligations under international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS and the 2016 Award in the South China Sea Arbitration and direct its vessels to cease and desist from its aggressive activities against Philippine vessels,” she added.

In Washington D.C., Ned Price, US State Department spokesperson, said the “provocative and unsafe” use of military-grade laser light interfered with the Philippines’ lawful operations in and around Ayungin Shoal.

“The United States stands with our Philippine allies in the face of the People’s Republic of China Coast Guard’s reported use of laser devices against the crew of a Philippine Coast Guard ship on February 6 in the South China Sea,” he said.

He added that China’s “dangerous operational behavior directly threatens regional peace and stability, infringes upon freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law, and undermines the rules-based international order.”

The DFA asserted that the CCG’s actions constituted a threat to Philippine sovereignty and security as a state, and are infringements of its sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

“The Philippines has the prerogative to conduct legitimate activities within its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. China does not have law enforcement rights or powers in and around Ayungin Shoal or any part of the Philippine EEZ,” said Daza.

In a separate tweet, Australian Ambassador to the Philippines HK Yu joined in airing concern over China’s “unsafe and intimidatory” action.

“We continue to call for peace, stability and respect for international law in the South China Sea, a vital international waterway,” she said.

The PCG report said BRP Malapascua (MRRV-4403) was supporting a rotation and resupply mission of the Philippine Navy in Ayungin Shoal at the time of the incident.

“As BRP Malapascua reached a 10nm (nautical mile) distance from Ayungin Shoal, the CCG vessel was monitored approximately 4nm of the ship’s dead ahead maneuvering from the portside heading starboard side. The Chinese ship illuminated the green laser light twice toward the BRP Malapascua, causing temporary blindness to her crew at the bridge. The Chinese vessel also made dangerous maneuvers by approaching about 150 yards from the vessel’s starboard quarter,” the PCG said.

The Ayungin Shoal or Second Thomas Shoal is located about 105 nautical miles off Palawan — well within the Philippines 200-nautical mile EEZ.

The DFA has already filed 203 notes verbales against China since 2022, eight of which were lodged this year.

Admiral Artemio Abu, PCG commandant, said they will “continue to exercise due diligence in protecting the country’s territorial integrity against foreign aggression.”

“Despite the dangerous maneuver of the much larger CCG ships and their aggressive actions at sea, the PCG ships will always be in the West Philippine Sea to sustain our presence and assert our sovereign rights,” Abu said in a statement.

The Japanese Embassy in Manila also expressed “serious concerns” over the latest developments in the South China Sea, the recent of which involved a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel harassing a Filipino ship by pointing a military-grade laser at it near Ayungin Shoal.

In a tweet accompanied by the link to the Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA) statement condemning the CCG move, Japanese Ambassador to the Philippines Kazuhiko Koshikawa called on all states to respect the international law of the sea.

“We express serious concerns about dangerous behavior against (Philippines) vessels,” he said. “All states should respect maritime order based on international law, in particular UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), and recall that 2016 Arbitral Award is final and legally binding. We firmly oppose any action that increase tensions.”