By CLAIRE MORALES TRUE and ALFRED GABOT
Managing Editor and Editor in Chief
WASHINGTON/MANILA – As President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is getting ready for an official trip to Beijing for a summit with China’s President Xi Jinping, tension in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea rose again as Chinese Coast Guard and militia ships reportedly disguised as fishing boats continue swarming the Spratlys and areas near or inside the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
At the same time, intelligence reports by the Philippine Armed Forces indicated that new reclamation may have been started by China near the Philippine territory, but could not mount an inspection in the area as Chinese vessels reportedly block fishermen and other Filipino vessels going to the area to verify, bolstering reports to Philippine authorities that new reclamations maybe in the offing.
In Pangasinan, fishermen reported seeing a China-like spy plane over the Philippine air space.
The developments in the region triggered new tensions prompting the United States to express alarm and made known again that it is backing the Philippines and would come to its aid in case of any attack on its ships or airplanes in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea in keeping with the Mutual Defense Treaty of the two countries signed in 1951.
The swarming of Chinese vessels were reported off Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal in the West Philippine Sea which prompted the US State Department in Washington D.C. to express alarm and concern, amidst China’s continuing denials of reports supported by videos.
“The reported escalating swarms of PRC (People’s Republic of China) vessels in the vicinity of Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal in the Spratly Islands interfere with the livelihoods of Philippine fishing communities, and also reflect continuing disregard for other South China Sea claimants and states lawfully operating in the region,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said in Washington D.C.
Price said Washington DC supports Manila in its continued call on China to respect international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and its legal obligations under the 2016 arbitral ruling.
Also in Washington, lawyer Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines Maritime Institute, urged Philippine officials to do something to stop China from virtually invading Philippine waters.
“The Chinese are coming in nearer and nearer and often inside our Philippine exclusive economic zone in violation of international laws,” said Batongbacal interviewed in Washington D,C, by Philippine media.
“Patunayan natin na niloloko lang tayo ng China,” adding the country should strengthen its dialogue and partnership with its allies, not just the United States, to expose what China has been doing over the years.
AFP Western Command chief Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos has confirmed that dozens of Chinese vessels have been moving closer to Palawan in recent months.
In a statement on December 14, the Department of National Defense said it views the swarming with “great concern” and maintained that the Philippines would not give up a single square inch of its territory.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila denied the reports.
The US had also shared concerns over the unsafe encounter between the Philippine Navy and the Chinese Coast Guard when the latter seized debris that the Navy had fished out of the West Philippine Sea on November 20.
“The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in upholding the rules-based international order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as guaranteed under international law,” Price said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has expressed concern over China’s latest reported reclamation activities in some unoccupied features in the Spratly Islands on the South China Sea.
This following a Bloomberg report that China is constructing on several unoccupied land features in the contested waters, citing warnings from Western officials that these latest activities indicate an “attempt to advance a new status quo, even though it’s too early to know whether China would seek to militarize them.”
Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Ma. Teresita Daza said the DFA is checking the veracity of the report with relevant Philippine government agencies.
“The department takes note of the Bloomberg article on reported reclamation activities by China in unoccupied features of the Spratlys. We are seriously concerned as such activities contravene the Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea’s (DOC) undertaking on self-restraint and the 2016 Arbitral Award,” she said in a statement Wednesday. “We have asked relevant Philippine agencies to verify and validate the contents of this report.”
The most recent one was issued by the DFA on December 12, protesting the Chinese Coast Guards’ seizure of debris picked up by the Philippine Navy off Pag-asa Island.
China claims most of the South China Sea under its so-called nine-dash line, which also overlaps with the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
In 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration handed down a ruling based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea invalidating the invisible demarcation, which China disregards up to this date.
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire sea and has ignored an international court ruling that its claims have no legal basis. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims to parts of it.
President Marcos Jr., who took office in June, earlier insisted he would not let China trample on the Philippines’ maritime rights.
Marcos said his planned visit to China in January could be an opportunity to find a way to avoid further incidents.