December 28, 2023
MANILA – The year 2023 saw the escalation of tension in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) with Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s administration pursuing a more assertive tack against China, reversing the policy of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.
“I think this is very evident,” National Security Council spokesperson Jonathan Malaya told INQUIRER.net when asked if the Marcos administration has become more assertive in WPS compared to previous years.
“We have repeatedly condemned China’s actions and asked them to exercise restraint so as not to jeopardize the stability and peace of the region,” he added.
The regular rotation and resupply (Rore) mission of the Philippines in the BRP Sierra Madre — a Navy ship grounded in Ayungin Shoal since 1999 — became the flashpoint of tension between Manila and Beijing.
This year, a number of unarmed attacks by China on Philippine vessels also occurred in Scarborough Shoal, whose lagoon has been in Beijing’s control since 2012 after a standoff with Manila.
Laser, ‘dangerous maneuvers’
In February, China Coast Guard (CCG) used a military-grade laser on a Philippine Coast Guard vessel supporting a Rore mission in BRP Sierra Madre, causing temporary blindness to the Filipino crew.
The conduct of “dangerous maneuvers” also became the wont of CCG against Filipino vessels in almost every Rore mission this year, sometimes even escalating to outright ramming of a resupply boat, like what happened in October.
Also this year, the CCG fired water cannons at Philippine vessels four times.
On Aug. 6, CCG fired a water cannon causing damage to one of the boats contracted to resupply BRP Sierra Madre. Another water cannon attack occurred anew on Nov. 10 during a similar mission in the Philippine military outpost.
On Dec. 9, the CCG also fired a water cannon against Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessels on a humanitarian mission in Scarborough Shoal, causing significant damage to one of the Filipino vessels.
This was followed by another water cannon attack on Dec. 10 on a resupply mission in the BRP Sierra Madre, concurrent with the civilian-led Christmas convoy in the WPS.
“China’s recent actions especially during the last Rore to Ayungin and the humanitarian mission to Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) is a serious escalation on the part of China,” Malaya pointed out.
Despite these “escalations,” the Philippines remained “responsible” and practiced “restraint” in dealing with China’s actions, according to Malaya.
“The Philippines has been very restrained and responsible but the same cannot be said of China,” Malaya stressed.
China’s actions are based on its assertion of ownership of nearly the entire South China Sea, including most of the WPS, refusing to accept an international tribunal award in 2016 which effectively invalidated its claims.
The 2016 Arbitral Award stemmed from the case lodged by the Philippines in 2013 against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
“The government has raised the arbitral award at every opportunity,” Malaya said, pointing out that Marcos made it a point to assert the country’s maritime rights in the Asean summit and other international fora.
Marcos’ upholding of the arbitral award, again, was in stark contrast to Duterte’s policy, with the former chief executive even comparing it to a “piece of paper” that could be thrown away in a wastebasket.
Marcos pivot to US, more joint patrols
This policy shift is also evident with the Marcos administration pivoting towards its traditional ally the United States and the conduct of more maritime exercises in the WPS in an effort to push back against China’s actions.
In 2020, Duterte even tried to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between Manila and Washington, but he later recalled this decision in 2021.
The conduct of bilateral exercises with American troops, as well as other defense agreements, are dependent on the VFA.
Since then, the US and the Philippines held bigger joint military exercises this year, and even conducted joint patrols in the WPS in September and November, which China deem as provocations.
Australia and Canada also joined the joint patrols inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone last November and September.
Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr., said more countries are expected to join the joint patrols in the WPS in the coming years.
“We will exercise and implement the award ourselves by getting other nations to support us in pushing back against China’s aggressive actions,” Malaya said.
Malaya also assured that the government “will not back down, will not be deterred, and will always push and assert the national interest at every opportunity.”