Philippine officials condemn China over debris showdown, boats massing in South China Sea

The criticism comes less than a month before President Ferdinand Marcos Jr is set to go to Beijing for a state visit from Jan 3 to 6.

Maria Cepada

Maria Cepada

The Straits Times


A file photo from May 14, 2019, showing a Philippine Coast Guard boat (foreground) sailing past a Chinese Coast Guard vessel in the South China Sea. PHOTO: AFP

December 16, 2022

MANILA – Government officials in the Philippines have doubled down on criticising Beijing’s latest incursions in the South China Sea, as Chinese vessels swarmed parts of the disputed waters in early December, mere weeks after an encounter between the Philippine Navy and the Chinese Coast Guard.

The criticism comes less than a month before President Ferdinand Marcos Jr is set to go to Beijing for a state visit from Jan 3 to 6.

Mr Marcos has been in a delicate balancing act between China and the United States amid an intensifying battle between the two superpowers for influence in South-east Asia.

Senior Undersecretary Jose Faustino Jr, officer-in-charge of the Philippines’ Department of National Defence (DND), said on Wednesday that it was unacceptable for Chinese militia boats to be massing around Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal.

These are areas located within the disputed Spratlys archipelago in the eastern part of the South China Sea that are already within Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Manila officially calls this area the West Philippine Sea.

In 2016, the Philippines won an arbitration case before an international tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, which invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claim over the South China Sea and ruled that Manila has sovereign rights over the waters within its EEZ.

Beijing refuses to recognise this outcome.

Footage from local TV station GMA-7 that aired on Wednesday showed several Chinese vessels still lingering around Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal.

Mr Faustino reiterated Mr Marcos’ earlier order for the DND “not to give up a single square of Philippine territory”.

“Our lines remain open to dialogue. However, we maintain that activities which violate our sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction, and undermine the peace and stability of the region, are unacceptable,” Mr Faustino said.

Hours after his statement, Philippine senators passed a resolution expressing the chamber’s disgust at China over a Nov 20 sea encounter concerning rocket debris that the Philippine Navy found floating off the coast of Thitu Island, which is also part of the Spratlys archipelago.

The incident occurred in the same week that US Vice-President Kamala Harris visited the Philippines and reiterated support for its ally in the event of an armed attack in the South China Sea.

Senator Francis Tolentino, during a speech, played a video showing a Philippine Navy rubber boat towing rocket debris back to shore and Chinese Coast Guard members on a bigger inflatable boat cutting the towing line.

Calling out in broken English, a Philippine Navy officer can be heard off-camera trying to stop the Chinese, who did not respond and proceeded to collect the rocket debris.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila insisted that the Philippine side had returned the object to China “after friendly consultation”, but Mr Tolentino said the video showed otherwise.

The Philippines has already sent a diplomatic note to China to clarify the incident.

“These actions… are slowly but surely eroding Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea and harming the country’s strategic position,” said Mr Tolentino.

Senator Loren Legarda then called China out for bullying.

“We are mad at what you are doing to our troops. That is simple bullying. We cannot tolerate that act to happen again,” she said.

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri later made a motion to adopt a resolution to express the body’s “disgust on what had transpired in this particular incident”. The Senate unanimously voted “yes”.

The final version of this resolution is still being drafted and will likely be signed by senators once they resume their session in January.

The chamber adjourned for the holidays on Wednesday night.

Reporters have repeatedly asked the Chinese Embassy for comment on the statements of Mr Faustino and the Philippine Senate, but it has yet to respond as at press time.

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