PH, China headed for sea patrol standoff

The Philippines and China are heading to a standoff as the two countries won’t budge on their respective assertions they have maritime sovereignty over the disputed South China Sea, and in the case of Manila over the West Philippine Sea.

This came after Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command Chief Vice Admiral Ramil Enriquez vowed on Sunday the military will continue to defend the country’s maritime territory from Chinese intrusions.

Enriquez said Chinese vessel "intrusions" in the WPS have stopped but the AFP will continue to protect its territorial waters in the South China Sea.

According to Enriquez, the military deployed three aircraft in the West Philippine Sea last week, but they did not detect unlawful Chinese activities.

“We are not expecting that they will stop because we have defense against their intrusions in our waters. Nevertheless, we will continue to insist that we do not recognize their authority there, so we won't stop protesting,” Enriquez said.

He was reacting to reports that Chinese vessels reportedly were still harassing Philippine authorities in contested waters.

Last week, the Department of Foreign Affairs filed more than 200 diplomatic protests against China over its "unlawful issuance of over 200 radio challenges, sounding of sirens, and blowing of horns" while Philippine authorities were conducting patrols in its territorial waters.

However, China on Thursday insisted its law enforcement activities in the disputed South China Sea are legitimate and justified.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin maintained Beijing's activities will continue despite Manila's complaints that Philippine government vessels were harassed by China while conducting maritime patrols in Philippine territorial waters.

Reports that China’s biggest civilian patrol boat could be used to support South China Sea claims would lead to a stand-off between Beijing and Manila over their authority over the disputed waters.

The South China Morning Post reported that Beijing’s largest civilian patrol boat entered service on Saturday, with the state broadcaster CCTV reporting it would be used to deliver strategic resources and help protect the country's maritime claims.

The Haixun 09, or "sea patrol", was commissioned under the Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) of the southern province of Guangdong province, which oversees the South China Sea, the Post said Sunday.

With a 10,700-tonne displacement, it is also the most advanced ship in the civilian fleet and is equipped with water cannons, an aerial tracking system, medical rescue capabilities and a helicopter landing deck, according to the state-controlled China Central Television (CCTV).

Colin Koh, a research fellow from the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, said in the Post article that the MSA appeared to be upgrading its emergency response fleet as part of an inter-service rivalry with the Coastguards.

According to Koh, the MSA has previously deployed assets to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and it could justify its actions as contributing to the common public good by providing equipment for emergency responses, for example search and rescue operations.

"Overall, this will lend to the effect of helping China assert its control in the area, including enforcing navigational rules vis-A-vis foreign vessels," Koh said.

Earlier, China announced a new rule at the end of August that all foreign ships entering the areas of the South China Sea it claims must register their details with the Chinese maritime authorities.

Yue Gang, a former colonel of the People's Liberation Army, expressed caution about the deployment of Haixun 09, saying it should be more geared toward civilian uses.

Yue stressed that the ship can travel 180,000km -- roughly the length of China's coastline -- without refueling and could carry out operations such as rescues and enforcing fishing rules across the Bohai Sea or East China Sea.

"But the South China Sea is sensitive. Long-term deployment of the vessel to the area could lead to conflict," Yue warned.

If Haixun09 is sent to the area but does not take enforcement action against rival claimants such as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines in areas China claims for itself, then it would undermine Beijing's authority.

However, if the patrol boat takes action, then it could lead to an international confrontation, something that China does not want, Yue said.

"It can be dispatched to places like the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea for a symbolic tour, passing neighboring countries and showing off China's maritime power and capabilities. But I don't think it's the time yet for a permanent long-term deployment," Yue pointed out.

Meanwhile, think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) reported that Chinese militia ships continued their presence in Philippine waters.

In its latest report, the AMTI claimed that “recent imagery shows that the number of ships at Iroquois [Reef] has fallen since the Philippine protest, but it also suggests that many of those vessels likely headed back to Union Banks, where numbers are now reaching the levels seen in March.”

But the Wescom chief said Philippine authorities continue to protest and ask for international help.

“We already complained about their reclamation activities which damaged our coral reefs so we will not stop calling out their illegal practices,” Enriquez said. 

Topics: South China Sea , West Philippine Sea , China , Ramil Enriquez
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