The Philippines on Thursday accused Chinese Coast Guard vessels of firing water cannon at boats delivering supplies to Filipino marines in the disputed South China Sea/West Philippine Sea, and told Beijing to "back off."
China, however, insisted that its Coast Guard was upholding its sovereignty over the maritime waters.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian claimed the Philippines boats were in the wrong as they had no permission to enter the area on Nov. 16, Tuesday.
But Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. expressed "outrage, condemnation and protest" to Beijing over the incident as the Philippine boats were traveling to Second Thomas Shoal in the contested Spratly Islands.
"Fortunately, no one was hurt; but our boats had to abort their resupply mission," Locsin said in a statement on Twitter, describing the three Chinese vessels' actions as "illegal.”
Vice President Leni Robredo, during a meeting with retired military generals yesterday, said the aggression must not happen again.
"This kind of treatment of Filipinos must stop. WPS [West Philippine Sea] is ours as the arbitration tribunal ruled in July 2016," Robredo said in a statement.
“Our resupply vessels have been harassed again. Filipinos cannot be treated in such a demeaning manner. Our win in the arbitral tribunal already provides us the tool we need to protect the areas that belong to us,” she added.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, for his part, said the incident was “an affront to Philippine sovereign rights over its continental shelf.”
“The arbitral tribunal ruled it unequivocally as part of the Philippine continental shelf which is not subject to territorial claim by any other country. Being not susceptible to a territorial claim by any other country, there can be no territorial dispute on the same. Only the Philippines has the exclusive sovereign rights over its continental shelf, including Ayungin shoal,” he said.
“While the Philippine response protesting China’s action is commendable by itself, it is nonetheless disheartening to note that this aggression may be traced back to the wrong Philippine policy. We focused principally on bilateral diplomacy while neglecting the other tools in our toolbox which would have enabled us to move the tribunal’s ruling to the next level,” Del Rosario added.
Locsin described the Philippine boats as "public,” suggesting they were civilian vessels, and said they were covered by a mutual defense pact with the United States.
"China has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas," he added. "They must take heed and back off."
Tensions over the resource-rich seas spiked this year after hundreds of Chinese vessels were detected at Whitsun Reef, which is also in the Spratly archipelago.
China claims almost all of the sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually, with competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The contested waters also have valuable fishing grounds and are believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
Beijing has ignored a 2016 ruling by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that its historical claim over most of the sea to be without basis.
China controls several reefs in the South China Sea including Scarborough Shoal — which Beijing seized from Manila in 2012 – and is just 240 kilometers west of Luzon.
It has asserted its stance by building up small shoals and reefs into military bases with airstrips and port facilities.
After China occupied Mischief Reef in the mid-1990s, the Philippines marooned a derelict navy vessel atop the nearby Second Thomas Shoal to assert Manila's territorial claim. Members of the Philippine Marines are based there.
Locsin said the shoal was within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, and warned China's "failure to exercise self-restraint threatens the special relationship" between the two countries.
"We do not ask permission to do what we need to do in our territory," he said.
The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to pivot away from the United States, the Philippines' former colonial master, towards China since taking power in 2016 and has appeared reluctant to confront Beijing.
But facing growing domestic pressure to take a harder line, Duterte has insisted Philippine sovereignty over the waters is not negotiable.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said Thursday: "We will continue to assert our sovereignty… over our territory."
In July, Duterte walked back on a decision to axe a key military deal — the Visiting Forces Agreement — with the United States during a visit by Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin.
In a joint statement issued this week, the two countries reaffirmed their treaty commitments that include "obligations to respond to an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either the United States or the Philippines."
Locsin asserted that the Ayungin Shoal is part of the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), which is an integral part of the Philippines, as well as the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, over which the Philippines has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. earlier said the water cannon incident lasted an hour that forced the two Philippine vessels — which he described as wooden-hulled boats – to abort their mission.
Esperon, who also chairs the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea, said they will continue the resupply mission to Filipino troops stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.
"We will continue the resupply and we do not have to ask the permission of anybody because that is within our territory," said Esperon.
"We hope that with our protest, they will also heed our calls for them to back off," he added.
The Western Command earlier reported that three Chinese Coast Guard vessels “blocked and water cannoned” two Philippine supply boats or "bancas" on Nov. 16.
Esperon said he was also surprised over the unusual presence of many Chinese ships—as many as 19– off the Ayungin Shoal.
The Chinese presence off Pagasa Island has also grown significantly, Esperon said.
In April 2012, the Chinese Coast Guard also fired water cannons to drive away Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground located 120 nautical miles off Philippine territorial waters or within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone based on United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).
The 2012 incident has prompted the Philippine government to sue China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2013. The UN-backed PCA ruled in favor of the Philippines in July 2016 when it invalidated China's nine-dash claim over the South China Sea.
In the same ruling, the arbitral award ruled that the Spratly Islands, Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, and Recto (Reed) Bank are within the Philippine EEZ.
The PCA also deemed Scarborough shoal as a common fishing ground and outlawed China's aggressions against Filipino fishermen there.
China has repeatedly rejected the Hague ruling.
Also on Thursday, the Philippine Coast Guard said two 97-meter multi-role response vessels recently acquired from Japan would boost the country’s ability to patrol the West Philippine Sea.
In a Facebook post on Thursday, the PCG said the ships – manufactured by Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Co. Ltd. In Japan — will be the PCG's largest vessels, a record currently held by the French-made 83-meter off-shore patrol vessel (OPV) BRP Gabriela Silang.
These new ships, it said, are based on the Japan Coast Guard’s ‘Kunigami-class’ vessels and are capable of a maximum speed of 24 knots and an endurance of 4,000 nautical miles or more.
With these ships, the PCG will be able to launch sustained maritime patrols in the country’s waters including the West Philippine Sea, the Philippine Rise, and in the southern parts of the country.
Earlier on Thursday, the second vessel was launched at the Shimonoseki Shipyard in Japan and is expected to be delivered to the Philippines by May 2022.
The first vessel was earlier launched at the same shipyard in July 2021 and is expected to reach the country in March 2022. – With AFP