China ‘swarms’ in South China Sea hindering Philippines livelihood: US

The Philippine military believes that these Chinese fishing vesselsare manned by members of the Chinese maritime militia, which is a part of China’s military.

Jacob Lazaro

Jacob Lazaro

Philippine Daily Inquirer


CONSTANT PRESENCE | Suspected Chinese maritime militia vessels, seen in this Dec. 6, 2022, photo, have had a constant presence at Iroquois Reef since last year and interfere with the livelihood of Filipino fisherfolk, according to the US Department of State. (CONTRIBUTED PHOTO)

December 21, 2022

MANILA — The United States on Tuesday said it was backing the Philippines’ complaints against the swarming of parts of the country’s waters in the South China Sea (SCS) by Chinese vessels believed to be manned by its maritime militia that undermined the livelihood of Filipino fishermen.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila immediately issued a sharp response, saying that Washington made some “unfounded accusations” against China to “drive wedges” between countries, create tensions and harm peace and stability in the region.

“The reported escalating swarms of PRC (People’s Republic of China) vessels in the vicinity of Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal in the Spratly Islands interfere with the livelihoods of Philippine fishing communities, and also reflect continuing disregard for other South China Sea claimants and states lawfully operating in the region,” US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.

Citing satellite images, it was the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a Washington-based think tank, that first reported in November that up to 30 Chinese vessels were constantly present at Iroquois Reef from September 2021 to September 2022.

Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos confirmed the “swarming presence” of Chinese fishing vessels at Iroquois Reef and also at Sabina Shoal during the same period.

“The United States supports the Philippines’ continued calls upon the People’s Republic of China to respect the international law of the sea in the South China Sea, as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and its legal obligations pursuant to the 2016 arbitral ruling,” Price said.

The arbitral ruling upheld Philippine sovereignty over its 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and invalidated China’s claims to virtually all of the South China Sea.

“The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in upholding the rules-based international order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law” Price said.

There was no immediate comment from Malacañang on the US state department’s statement.

Suspected militia
The Philippine military believes that Chinese fishing vessels in the South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea (WPS), waters within the country’s 370-km EEZ, are manned by members of the Chinese maritime militia, which is a part of China’s military.

According to Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Tessie Daza, 193 diplomatic protests against China have been filed this year, 65 of which were under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who is scheduled to visit Beijing in early January.

The most recent note verbale, which was filed on Dec. 12, sought to clarify the encounter between the Philippine Navy and Chinese Coast Guard on Nov. 20. The Chinese then “forcefully” seized from the Filipinos a supposed fragment of its space rocket that landed on waters near Pag-asa Island, the largest island held by Filipinos in the Spratlys chain. The Chinese said they took the object after a “friendly consultation” with the Filipinos.

The US state department statement called the incident an “unsafe encounter.”

Senate resolution
Following the reported encounter, the Senate passed a resolution last week calling out China’s “bullying.”

Sen. Francis Tolentino showed a video of the Chinese militia cutting the rope used by the Filipinos to tow the object.

Price’s statement triggered a strong rebuke from the Chinese Embassy.

It said that his statement “contains unfounded accusations against China that attempt to stir up troubles and drive a wedge between China and the Philippines.”

“We strongly deplore and firmly oppose that,” it said.

It made a subtle reference to China’s expansive claims to nearly all of the South China Sea when it said that the Philippines and China were separated by “only a strip of water.”

On a map showing its nine-dash line, China demarcates its vast claims to these waters that leave only a small section of the South China Sea that it recognizes as part of Philippine territory.

The embassy said that it was “only natural for neighbors to have differences” after being friends for “thousands of years.”

Disputes between the two countries were being handled properly and bilaterally through dialogue and consultation, it said.

“We urge the US to stop using the South China Sea issue to stir up troubles, sow discord between China and the Philippines and undermine stability in the South China Sea,” the embassy said.

Increase PCG visibility
In an interview with ANC on Tuesday, Tolentino said the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) should start deploying more personnel for greater visibility in the West Philippine Sea to preserve whatever is left of the country’s waters under siege by a swarm of Chinese militia vessels.

He said the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources should also assist Filipino fisherfolk in the area, and the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration to study the setting up of more weather stations to cover the West Philippine Sea.

“The freedom of navigation in terms of our fishermen should be pursued and highlighted; the right of our fishermen should be protected,” he said.

He said that last week’s Senate resolution showed the “collective sense of our legislators” that China’s “bullying” must stop.

“We have to prevent the erosion of our sovereignty. We have to generate some respect from the members of the international community,” Tolentino said. “We must bring back our dignity as a nation and not allow to be pushed around within our own domain.”

More construction works
Aside from beefing up the presence of the PCG, the government can also start building more classrooms, lighthouses and even radio transmitters on parts of the Philippines’ EEZ to “really show that it is ours,” Tolentino said.

The government can also build more fishery stations as a refuge for fisherfolk during bad weather, he said.

The Philippine government can also initiate negotiations for energy exploration involving other claimants to parts or the whole of the South China Sea like Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, and even Taiwan.

Marcos should also step up the “diplomatic pressure” on Beijing when he goes to China for a state visit next month, he added.

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