TENSION MOUNTS ANEW OVER WEST PHILIPPINE SEA: Near collision of China, PHL ships bared, protested; US rebuffs Beijing

A CHINA COAST GUARD vessel in a near collision with a Philippine Coast Guard ship off the Bajo de Masinloc, a Philippine territory and part of the Zambales province

By ALFRED GABOT

Editor in Chief

MANILA – Amid the Ukraine-Russia conflict, tension mounted anew between the Philippines and China after a China Coast Guard ship came in near collision with a Philippine Navy vessel at the Bajo de Masinloc, a part of Zambales and within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

The incident prompted the Philippine government to file a diplomatic protest to China but China insisted that there is nothing to apologize because it said Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) is “inherent China territory.”
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The tension came as the Philippines and the United States started its biggest “Balikatan” war exercises yet, with the participation of some 6,000 American soldiers and 4,000 Filipino troops and the Japan Self Defense Force and  USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, was in a Manila port call and later in drills in the West Philippine Sea.

This year’s “Balikatan” showcases several modern Armed Forces of the Philippines assets such as the “Black Hawk” helicopters, AAVs, and the BRP Tarlac.

Other units and assets used in combat drills were the Philippine Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team’s armored personnel carriers equipped with remote control weapons systems, and 105mm howitzers; and the Philippine Air Force Super’s newly acquired Embraer A-29B “Super Tucano” strike aircraft.

The United States, meanwhile,  reiterated China “has no lawful claim” in areas judged by the arbitral tribunal to be part of the Philippine exclusive economic zone and continental shelf following the recent maneuverings of the Chinese Coast Guard close to Philippine Coast Guard vessels off Scarborough Shoal.

Describing the situation in the South China Sea as “ground zero for strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific” and “test for international rules based order,” visiting Department of State Counselor Derek Cholleto stressed, according to published reports, the need for the US and Philippines to continue sharing information and coordinating responses to China’s use of “leverage” to coerce the Philippines or others in the disputed waters.

According to reports, Chollet met with Philippine officials in Manila where he underscored the US commitment to Southeast Asia and the US-Philippines alliance, particularly its commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

During the meetings, Chollet reportedly  reiterated US commitment to its obligations under the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty and find ways to “to refine and strengthen” the security relationship, ensuring that the defense relationship remains “relevant to current challenges.”

Despite China’s assertions that Bajo de Masinloc is part of China’s “inherent territory,” Malacañang maintained that the Philippines has “full sovereignty” over the shoal, one of the many disputed maritime features in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

Acting presidential spokesperson Martin Andanar made this statement after Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said China has sovereignty over Bajo de Masinloc and its adjacent waters “as well as sovereign rights and jurisdiction over relevant waters.”

“The Philippine position is we continue to exercise full sovereignty over Bajo de Masinloc and its territorial sea, as well as sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the surrounding EEZ (exclusive economic zone) and continental shelf,” Andanar said in a press statement.

Over the weekend, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) reported that a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) ship conducted a “close distance maneuvering” towards one of its ships, BRP Malabrigo, in Bajo de Masinloc on March 2, 2022.

The PCG said the incident is “a clear violation of the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).”

PCG Commandant Admiral Artemio Abu said the incident was the fourth reported close distance maneuvering incident involving CCG vessels in Bajo de Masinloc.

The first incident of close distance maneuvering involving a CCG vessel was reported on May 19, 2021 and the second and third ones happened on June 1 and 2, 2021.

China’s Wang justified the CCG’s action by maintaining that the disputed shoal is “China’s inherent territory.”

“We hope that the Philippine ships will earnestly respect China’s sovereignty and rights and interests, abide by China’s domestic law and international law, and avoid interfering with the patrol and law enforcement of the China Coast Guard in the above-mentioned waters,” Wang said.

The Philippines lost control over the shoal after a standoff with China in 2012.

Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, is located 124 nautical miles west of Zambales, and is within the country’s 200-nautical mile EEZ.

On July 12, 2016, the Philippines won the arbitration case it lodged against China after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands invalidated Beijing’s nine-dash line claim that covers nearly the entire South China Sea.