The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) last week made known its resolve to publicize incidents of Chinese aggressive moves in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) for all the world to see, something it was unable to do in the previous administration.
“The difference with the circumstances in the WPS in the past years with what’s happening in the past weeks right after the visit of President Marcos Jr. in China is that all of the incidents happening right now, we are making them publicly available,” said Commodore Jay Tarriela, PCG spokesperson on issues involving the WPS.
The PCG released videos of the Feb. 6 incident when a Chinese coast guard vessel beamed military-grade laser lights at its ship during a resupply mission at Ayungin Shoal, which temporarily blinded the Filipino crew.
On the diplomatic front, the Department of Foreign Affairs has filed 77 diplomatic protests since the start of Mr. Marcos’ term, 10 of them involving incidents this year alone. “The Philippines continues to protest China’s persistent and illegal presence in Philippine waters, including those near Ayungin Shoal,’’ DFA spokesperson Maria Teresita Daza said in a Palace briefing late last month.
Daza condemned the harassment of the PCG boat and stood by its account after the Chinese Embassy denied its coast guard used military grade laser. She called on China to “desist and restrain from this action because it is not only damaging and dangerous, it is also destabilizing in terms of peace and stability in the region.’’
Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo himself started to talk about China’s bullying on the international stage. At the Munich Security Conference last month, Manalo spoke about how Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen and seizure of islands within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) was a “daily situation that we face.’’
Practically gagged before, these frontline government agencies have become decidedly more outspoken and more assertive against Chinese activities in the WPS, a stance that was unthinkable under the Duterte administration which favored cozier relations with Beijing.
This new found courage stemmed from the more inclusive foreign policy under Mr. Marcos and his steadfast promise that the Philippines will “not lose one inch of its territory,’’ which was in stark contrast to Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to shelve the 2016 arbitral tribunal’s ruling upholding the Philippines’ rights over the WPS.
The President was correct to take a measured response to the Ayungin incident by declining to invoke the country’s mutual defense treaty with the United States, which he said could escalate the tension in the region. But he summoned the Chinese ambassador to express his “serious concern’’ about the incident. Last week, he called on the Armed Forces to strongly defend the Philippine territory, saying the South China Sea issue is now the “most complex geopolitical situation’’ in the world.
The harassment of the PCG boat, which occurred in the Philippine-occupied shoal 105 nautical miles west of Palawan, underscored the futility of relying on China’s assurances of peacefully resolving the conflict with its smaller neighbor. This happened despite Mr. Marcos’ first state visit to Beijing only last January, during which he and China’s President Xi Jinping made promises to strengthen ties, resume oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, and reach a “compromise’’ to enable Filipino fishermen to fish in their traditional fishing grounds increasingly blocked by Chinese navy and militia ships.
Significantly, the Philippines has started talks for joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea with the United States, Japan, and Australia, and is exploring defense partnerships with its neighbors Singapore and Vietnam. These multilateral patrols could serve as a show of force to respect the arbitral ruling that benefits not only the Philippines but other claimants in the South China Sea, as well as secure freedom of navigation in a strategic region that serves as a major route for global trade.
While the Philippines has been warned about being dragged into a full-blown conflict between the US and China should the latter move to retake Taiwan, it is left with no other recourse but to count on the help of its allies in defending its territory and to generate global attention to the belligerent actions of a powerful neighbor.
As it is, the Philippine experience had shown that no amount of diplomatic protests, friendly gestures, or even an international ruling will move China to reconsider its position that it owns nearly the entire South China Sea. It is an endless cycle, indeed a daily irritant, of the Chinese military driving away Filipinos from their own territory and occupying islands within the Philippine EEZ. While it is no match to China’s military might, the Philippines can use everything within its arsenal, including the power of information, to defend itself.