Philippines files protest vs China; envoy no-show at DFA
Chinese coast guard ships (L and R) corral a Philippine civilian boat chartered by the Philippine navy to deliver supplies to Philippine navy ship BRP Sierra Madre in the disputed South China Sea, on August 22, 2023. The Philippines accused a Chinese coastguard vessel of colliding on October 22, 2023 with a Philippine resupply boat as it travelled to a tiny garrison in the disputed South China Sea. AFP / Ted Aljibe



MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines has lodged a diplomatic protest against China over last Sunday’s “dangerous blocking maneuvers” by its ships that led to one of them “slightly” colliding with a Philippine vessel carrying supplies and provisions for troops stationed on BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoa

Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Ma. Teresita Daza yesterday said they summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to convey the protest, but it was Deputy Chief of Mission Zhou Zhiyong who showed up, as the ambassador was reportedly out of town. The DCM met with DFA Assistant Secretary Aileen Mendiola-Rau.

The Chinese embassy said its diplomat “made solemn representations… on the trespassing of the Philippine vessels into the Ren’ai Reef area… expressing strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to the trespassing.” Ren’ai Reef is the name given by Beijing to Ayungin Shoal.

Sunday’s incident, Daza said, has put into serious doubt the sincerity of the Chinese in upholding the understanding between President Marcos and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“We’ve already filed (diplomatic protest). The DCM was summoned so the protest was also conveyed,” Daza said at a press conference.

The Philippines has filed a total of 465 protests since January 2020, according to Daza. Manila has lodged 122 protests under the Marcos administration. For this year alone, 55 protests have been filed.

“The Philippine government has come out to actually strongly condemn this dangerous, irresponsible and illegal action of the Chinese Coast Guard and Chinese maritime militia,” Daza said. “We strongly believe, China, this is our Exclusive Economic Zone, this is our water,” she said, addressing Beijing.

“China has no right to linger in and around the waters of Ayungin Shoal and actually to interfere with the Philippines’ legitimate activities in and around the waters of Ayungin Shoal,” she added.

The DFA official emphasized that the Philippines exercises sovereign right and jurisdiction over Ayungin Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ EEZ and continental shelf as affirmed by the 2016 ruling on the South China Sea issue by the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague.

She noted that the Philippine vessels were undertaking routine and regular humanitarian mission for Philippine military personnel on board the Sierra Madre as allowed under international law.

“It’s rather difficult to imagine how these activities would be deemed as threatening or provocative to China, not only the China action endanger lives at sea, they are also illegal, dangerous and provocative and deplorable,” Daza said.

“They undermine mutual trust, confidence and respect that should underpin our bilateral relation and put into serious doubt the sincerity of the Chinese side to uphold the understanding between President Marcos and President Xi,” she said.

MDT trigger?

But while the Chinese action was aggressive, dangerous and provocative, Daza said it has yet to be determined if it could be considered an armed attack that could justify invoking the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States.

The US State Department said China’s action was “dangerous, unlawful and provocative” and reassured the Philippines of its support.

In a statement, the State Department said the Chinese “violated international law by intentionally interfering with the Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation.” It said Sunday’s incident was the latest in the string of provocations by the Chinese in Philippine waters.

“The unsafe maneuvers on Oct. 22 and the PRC water cannoning of a Philippines’ vessel on Aug. 5 are the latest examples of provocative PRC measures in the South China Sea to enforce its expansive and unlawful maritime claims, reflecting disregard for other states lawfully operating in the region,” it said.

The State Department emphasized that Ayungin Shoal is a feature situated well within the Philippines’ EEZ and continental shelf.

An international tribunal’s July 2016 decision, it said, has made it clear that “there exists no legal basis for any entitlement by China to maritime zones in the area of Ayungin Shoal.”

The US also has reaffirmed that Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels and aircraft, including those on its Coast Guard, anywhere in the South China Sea.

Other countries have also denounced China’s latest act of aggression. In a statement, France – through its embassy – “calls for respect of the freedom of navigation guaranteed by international law and recalls its attachment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the decision rendered by the Arbitral Court on July 12, 2016.”

Australia, said its Ambassador Hae Kyong Yu, “is concerned by China’s dangerous maneuvers that damaged Philippine vessels and disrupted a Philippine resupply mission in the Philippine EEZ.”

“We again call for peace, stability and respect for UNCLOS,” she said on X, formerly Twitter.

The DFA expressed gratitude to the international community for its steadfast support for and defense of a rules-based international order.

“Their statements of support show the level of concern that the international community has over persistent efforts to undermine UNCLOS (United Nations Convention in the Law of the Sea),” DFA’s Daza said.

China causing tensions – NSC

On the Chinese embassy’s lodging a complaint against the Philippines, National Security Council assistant director general Jonathan Malaya said it’s China that was making provocative actions.

“It’s not the Philippines that is increasing tensions. It’s China that is increasing tensions in the West Philippine Sea, especially by interfering in blocking our legitimate resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal,” Malaya said.

Malaya stressed that China is taking advantage of the situation to assert its claim over Ayungin Shoal and the entire South China Sea.

“That is a clear and unequivocal message being sent by the Philippines to China that we do not accept what is happening,” he said.

It is China “that is actually undertaking dangerous maneuvers and putting at risk not only the people who are manning the vessels,” he pointed out.

Former senator Richard Gordon, for his part, has called on the government to stand firm in defense of the country’s territorial integrity.

In a statement, Gordon characterized China’s actions last Sunday as a “crime of aggression” under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and that the incident should prompt the government to “bolster the nation’s military and navy capabilities, drawing parallels to the assertive actions taken by other countries.”

He cited Indonesia and Argentina, which stood up to China and – in the case of Indonesia – even resorted to burning encroaching Chinese fishing boats.

Gordon branded China an outright aggressor and not just a bully.

“We must call a spade a spade. China is not just a bully. It is an aggressor. It aims to have hegemonic power over Asia Pacific,” he said.

He reminded the public of the 2016 arbitral ruling which clearly “declares that Mischief (Panganiban) Reef and Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal are within the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines.”

“We have sovereign rights over Ayungin Shoal, it being in our exclusive economic zone. We must protect those rights,” he said.

He also emphasized that asserting sovereign rights over the country’s EEZ “would be an ongoing effort that requires unwavering commitment.”

“Asserting our sovereign rights over our exclusive economic zone will not happen overnight. But we have started already and must continue to do so consistently and without letup,” he said. — Mark Ernest Villeza, Cecille Suerte, Felipe