A first: China Navy holds drills within EEZ–AFP

This handout satellite image released by Maxar Technologies on March 24, 2024 and dated March 23, 2024 shows Chinese and Philippine ships in waters where the Philippines said the China Coast Guard blocked their supply vessel and damaged it with water cannon, during a Philippine supply mission near Second Thomas Shoal in disputed waters of the South China Sea. The Philippines said the China Coast Guard blocked a Filipino supply vessel and damaged it with water cannon on March 23, causing injuries near a reef off the Southeast Asian country. —Agence France-Presse



MANILA, Philippines — The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is conducting maritime exercises inside Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for the first time, increasing to 146 the number of Chinese vessels, among them 22 warships, spotted in several areas of the West Philippine Sea (WPS) since last week, according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Aside from the 22 PLA Navy, 16 China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels and 108 Chinese maritime militia ships were monitored in the West Philippine Sea from June 4 to 10, data from the Philippine Navy showed.

The number of vessels in the West Philippine Sea was higher than the 125 ships monitored from May 28 to June 3.

The Navy said 50 Chinese vessels were seen at the vicinity of Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, almost a month after CCG vessels seized supplies intended for troops deployed at the BRP Sierra Madre and blocked a medical evacuation of a sick Philippine Navy personnel at the grounded ship serving as the country’s outpost.

Of the 50 vessels, eight were PLA Navy warships, an increase from the two warships monitored the previous week.

Ayungin is an underwater feature about 195 kilometers west of Palawan province, well within the country’s 370-km EEZ.

The Navy said 42 Chinese vessels were at Pag-asa Island and 33 were at Panatag or Scarborough Shoal, while the remaining ships were at Kota, Likas, Lawak and Panata Islands and Sabina (Escoda) Shoal.

Maritime drills

On Tuesday, Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad, the Navy spokesperson on the West Philippine Sea, said the increase in Chinese warships in the West Philippine Sea from 11 to 22 could be attributed to the maritime drills being conducted by the PLA Navy in the vicinity of Sabina Shoal from June 4 to 11.

“This is the first time that we monitored an exercise by the PLA Navy within our [EEZ],” Trinidad said at a press briefing in Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.

He noted that a landing ship, a warship, and two other support vessels were involved in the drills.

The PLA Navy, according to him, conducted launching and recovery of aircraft and hovercraft, among others.

He said China’s drill at Sabina was not coordinated with the Philippine government, but noted that the Philippine military observed “the conduct of their exercise and we checked on the details of their capabilities.”

“The presence of the PLA Navy in Sabina is a reflection of their presence in the entire West Philippine Sea—illegal, coercive, aggressive and deceptive,” he said.

According to him, there were many ways to prevent the exercises from being conducted in the country’s EEZ.

“First and foremost, we inform everybody that it is illegal. They have no right to be here. We do not yet use force on force. There are many [ways] how to prevent or how to stop the actions of other countries, especially China,” he said.

New Beijing policy

The increase in Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea happened days before the June 15 implementation of a new Beijing policy authorizing its coast guard to arrest trespassers who cross what it claims are its borders in the South China Sea.

Trinidad said the military, the Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard were ready to prevent such a situation.

“We have increased patrols, we are involving our partners and allies, we are not the only ones concerned, even other countries are concerned about that. This is not only a problem of the Philippines, it is a problem of Asean and the international community,” he said.

On Monday, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the Philippines must be prepared because of more pronounced external threats as a result of the heightened geopolitical tension in the Indo-Pacific region.

In his speech before members of Army’s 5th Infantry Division (ID) at Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela province, the President said the Philippines’ northern part must be prepared “for any eventuality” due to its proximity to Taiwan, which puts the country in China’s “area of interest.”

“And that is why—the external threat now has become more pronounced, has become more worrisome. And that is why we have to prepare,” President Marcos told 5th ID soldiers.

New Army mission

It was Mr. Marcos’ first visit to the Army camp since it was chosen as one of the four new sites of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) with the United States.

The Marcos administration has added two other Edca sites in Cagayan province at the northern tip of the Luzon mainland.

With the current geopolitical tension in the Southeast Asian region, the AFP now has to take on two missions—external and internal security, according to Mr. Marcos.

He said the 5th ID’s mission now includes territorial defense from external threats, stressing the importance of providing the AFP with equipment, training and facilities to make it a highly capable force.

The President said that while the Philippines was not trying to expand its territory, its leadership had to reorient its thinking and adopt full commitment to defend the country’s sovereign rights.

“We are not trying to take territory. We are not trying to redraw the lines of sovereign territory, the EEZ, the baseline,” he said.

“We are not trying to change anything—not even an inch. But we will also not allow that to be taken away from us,” the President pointed out.The national government has to undertake various efforts to maintain peace in the region, such as engaging in continued diplomacy, he said.