Only Philippines has legitimate right over West Philippine Sea � Marcos
A video of the recent incident in Second Thomas Shoal is shown during a press conference about the recent Chinese aggression and harassment in Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed South China Sea, in Manila on December 11, 2023. The Philippines said it had summoned China’s envoy on December 11 and flagged the possibility of expelling him following the most tense confrontations between the countries’ vessels in years at flashpoint reefs in the disputed South China Sea. AFP / Earvin Perias

DFA summons Chinese envoy

MANILA, Philippines — Only Filipinos have the “legitimate right” to operate anywhere in the West Philippine Sea, President Marcos has asserted, stressing that the country would remain steadfast in the defense of its sovereignty amid China’s continued “dangerous actions against our citizens.

In a strongly worded statement posted on his social media accounts late Sunday, Marcos denounced the latest “aggression and provocations” by the Chinese coast guard and maritime militia against Philippine vessels in the West Philippine Sea.

“No one but the Philippines has a legitimate right or legal basis to operate anywhere in the West Philippine Sea. The illegal presence in our waters and dangerous actions against our citizens is an outright and blatant violation of international law and the rules-based international order,” Marcos said.

“The aggression and provocations perpetrated by the China Coast Guard and their Chinese Maritime Militia against our vessels and personnel over the weekend have only further steeled our determination to defend and protect our nation’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea,” he declared.

Chinese naval vessels attacked with water cannons Philippine vessels en route to Ayungin Shoal to deliver provisions to a military outpost on BRP Sierra Madre on Sunday.

Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. was on board one of the vessels – the wooden hulled Unnaiza Mae 1 – which got bumped by a Chinese coast guard ship, as it made its way to the Sierra Madre.

Another resupply vessel, M/L Kalayaan, sustained engine damage and had to be towed back to port. PCG’s BRP Cabra sustained damage to its mast due to the water cannon blast.

“I have been in constant communication with our national security and defense leadership, and have directed our uniformed services to conduct their missions with the utmost regard for the safety of our personnel, yet proceed with a mission-oriented mindset,” Marcos said.

“To our gallant service members, be assured of our utmost gratitude and fullest support. We remain undeterred,” he said.

“Let me reiterate what is settled and widely recognized: Ayungin Shoal is within our Exclusive Economic Zone, any foreign claim of sovereignty over it is baseless and absolutely contrary to international law. Bajo de Masinloc is sovereign Philippine territory and an integral part of our archipelago,” he said.

Ayungin Shoal is located about 105 nautical miles from Palawan. China is also claiming the shoal, which it calls Ren’ ai Jiao.

Located 124 nautical miles from Zambales, Bajo de Masinloc also known as Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) is a traditional fishing area for Filipino fishermen.

Yesterday, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian and filed a diplomatic protest over the incidents.

The DFA said this was the fourth time this year that water cannons had been used against Philippine vessels.

“More alarmingly, this is the third incident where dangerous maneuvers by Chinese vessels have resulted in a collision since the 22 October 2023 RORE (regular rotation and resupply) mission,” the DFA said in a statement.

National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) spokesman Jonathan Malaya said they are preparing to present to President Marcos a new national strategy to address China’s escalating maritime aggression.

“We have to make some adjustments given the recent developments and we hope to be able to present this to the President very soon,” Malaya said yesterday at a briefing at Malacañang.

“So, if the question is, will there be adjustments in our movements, yes, as soon as the President approves the National Strategy because the President himself is concerned,” he added.

‘Pure aggression’

Brawner said China was escalating its aggression in the contested waters but said it would not deter Filipino forces from defending the Philippines’ territorial interests in the busy waterway.

He said the swarm of Chinese ships was much bigger than in previous months.

“It’s pure aggression,” Brawner said of China’s high-seas maneuvers. “I witnessed how many times the big Chinese coast guard and militia ships cut our path. They water-cannoned us, then bumped us. It’s angering,” Brawner said.

“This really needs a diplomatic solution at the higher level,” he said, but added that the Philippine “armed forces will continue our mission because it is lawful and it’s our obligation to bring supplies to our troops in the frontlines, and it’s our obligation to protect our fishermen.”

Although now crumbling with rust and holes, the slightly listing Sierra Madre remains an actively commissioned Philippine Navy ship, meaning any assault on it would be considered an act of war. It has become a fragile symbol of the territorial claims of the Philippines in the strategic waterway, which China claims virtually in its entirety. Brawner shared with troops on Sierra Madre a traditional rice lunch eaten by hand.

PCG spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela called the Chinese coast guard’s actions “barbaric” at a news conference and said the PCG would not use its water cannons against China’s ships.

He rejected Beijing’s claim that the Philippines’ operations in the Ayungin Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc were meant to escalate tension in the West Philippine Sea.

“These operations were not intended to provoke any conflict but rather were routine in nature, with a humanitarian component aimed at supporting the livelihood of our fishermen and the well-being of our soldiers,” said the PCG official.

“To clarify, the recent incidents in Bajo de Masinloc and Ayungin Shoal should not be seen as an escalation of tension caused by our provocation,” he said on X.

“It is evident that they carry out these illegal actions because they believe they can, taking advantage of the perceived vulnerability of countries like the Philippines to assert their dominance,” Tarriela said, referring to China’s provocative actions.

Defending its actions, the Chinese coast guard said it had “implemented controls in accordance with laws and regulations.” The statement gave no details about the measures taken but said the Philippines’ action “seriously infringed on China’s sovereignty.”

It also said a Philippine vessel ignored warnings and, in violation of international navigation regulations, made a sharp turn in an “unprofessional and dangerous manner” and intentionally collided with a Chinese coast guard ship, causing “scratching.”

“The responsibility lies entirely with the Philippine side,” the China Coast Guard said.

The US State Department said the actions by China’s ship “were dangerous and unlawful” and undermined regional stability. It renewed a vow that it would defend Philippine forces if they face an armed attack.

China has rejected all international condemnation and attempts at legal intervention, including a 2016 ruling by a UN-backed arbitration tribunal that invalidated China’s claims, leaving them without any legal basis. China says it has a legal right to “defend its sovereignty” in keeping with its expansive claim to the South China Sea.

UNCLOS anniversary

“China’s actions on December 9, the dousing of Philippine vessels using water cannons are serious actions aimed at preventing Philippine authorities from undertaking legitimate activities around the area,” the DFA said. “These actions violate the Philippines’ sovereignty and jurisdiction and are a threat to peace, good order, and security.”

The DFA reiterated that the resupply mission to the Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal on Sunday is a “legitimate exercise of the Philippines given that the feature is part of our exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.”

“The Philippines has sovereign rights and jurisdiction over it,” the DFA said.

“The Department will not tire of conveying these positions on Bajo de Masinloc and on Ayungin Shoal to the Chinese side, inspired by our steadfast uniformed personnel on the BRP Sierra Madre and the services that are committed to their support and sustenance,” it said.

The DFA also said it was “regrettable” that the Ayungin Shoal harassment by the Chinese happened on the 41st anniversary of UNCLOS or United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“We will continue to call on China to be a responsible member of the international community and abide by its commitments, desist from undertaking actions that violate Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea, and undermine the mutual trust and confidence that should underpin bilateral relations,” the DFA said.

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said the Chinese ambassador should be sent away, while Sen. Ronald dela Rosa said PCG vessels should have their own powerful water cannons so they can fight back when attacked again by the Chinese with water cannons.

The US has called out China for interfering in lawful Philippine maritime operations and urged it to stop its “dangerous and destabilizing conduct” in the South China Sea.

“Obstructing supply lines to this longstanding outpost and interfering with lawful Philippines maritime operations undermines regional stability,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.

“By impeding the safe operations of Philippine vessels carrying provisions to Filipino service members stationed at Second Thomas Shoal, the PRC interfered in lawful Philippine maritime operations and in Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation,” Miller said. — Pia Lee-Brago, Evelyn Macairan, Cecille Suerte Felipe