The Philippines has again condemned China’s coastguard for its latest “provocative action” against Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea, shortly after the two nations agreed to take additional steps to manage tensions in the disputed waterway.
Yesterday, Jonathan Malaya, the spokesperson of the National Security Council, referred to an incident publicized by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) over the weekend. The January 12 incident saw the China Coast Guard (CCG) force fishermen to return sea shells obtained close to the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
“We were hoping that this 2024, the situation in the WPS will be more peaceful but this latest incident that showed our fishermen being driven and harassed by the CCG personnel is alarming and we condemn this latest provocative action on the part of the CCG against our fishermen,” he said, according to the Philippine Canadian Inquirer.
While relatively minor, the incident comes after a year of growing tension in the South China Sea, where China’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim lops off large portions of other nations’ Exclusive Economic Zones. Scarborough Shoal, in China’s control since a stand-off with the Philippines in 2012, has been the focus of the tensions, with the PCG accusing its Chinese counterpart of roping off the entrance to the shoal’s lagoon, to prevent access by Filipino fishermen. In one incident last month, the Philippine government claimed, a CCG ship fired high-pressure water cannons “at least 8 times” at a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel close to the shoal.
Similar incidents have also occurred in the vicinity of the Second Thomas Shoal, where Beijing imposed an informal blockade for much of 2023. This has resulted in a number of confrontations, including one in October in which Chinese vessels collided with a Philippine navy vessel and ship seeking to resupply the troops stationed aboard a warship grounded on the shoal. Chinese vessels have also used high-powered water cannons and a military-grade laser to drive away Philippine supply ships.
This escalating confrontation has pushed relations between Beijing and Manila to their lowest point in at least a decade, and prompted a convergence between the Philippines and its existing partners, particularly the United States and Japan.
Malaya’s comments came a few days after the Philippines and Canada signed a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation, a move that Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said could later lead to a troop pact akin to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that the Philippines has with the U.S. The VFA governs the rotation of thousands of U.S. troops in and out of the Philippines for war drills and exercises. Canada has frequently expressed its support for the Philippines as China has ramped up its assertiveness in the South China Sea. In particular, it has expressed strong support for the 2016 ruling by an arbitral tribunal in The Hague, which said that China’s South China Sea claims had no basis under international law.
The Inquirer also reported today that the Philippines is primed to sign an agreement on maritime cooperation with Vietnam during the visit of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to the country next week. According to The Inquirer, the two sides will sign a memorandum of understanding on maritime cooperation between their respective coast guards, which seeks “to strengthen understanding, mutual trust and confidence of cooperation… towards the promotion, preservation, and protection of their mutual interests in the Southeast Asian region,” according to a copy of the final draft of the MOU obtained by the Inquirer.
As per the draft, the agreement will allow Vietnam and the Philippines to better manage conflicts in the contested waters and conduct activities “in accordance with principles of international law, the national laws of each party, and international conventions to which both Vietnam and Philippines are parties.”
The growing Sino-Philippine tensions, and the fear that they could lead to an inadvertent hot conflict, underpinned the talks held last week between China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Nong Rong and Theresa Lazaro, an undersecretary at the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
Discussing the issue while co-chairing the eighth meeting of the China-Philippines Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea in Shanghai, the two sides reaffirmed that the South China Sea dispute is “not the whole story of bilateral relations,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement released on January 17, Reuters reported. Both officials believe “maintaining communication and dialogue is essential to maintaining maritime peace and stability.”
In its own statement on the meeting, the DFA released by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said both sides “agreed to calmly deal with incidents, if any, through diplomacy.”
This is not the first time that the two nations have pledged recently to resolve their divergent maritime claims via diplomatic channels, so it is hard to say that it will make any appreciable difference to the situation offshore. Absent a genuine desire to negotiate in good faith, particularly on the Chinese side, the pattern of offshore confrontation seems set to continue in the months to come.
Source: The Diplomat