February 17, 2023
MANILA – The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and a House leader said on Thursday that it might be premature to invoke the activation of the country’s Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States following a Chinese vessel’s “military-grade” laser shot at a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ship in the West Philippine Sea.
Under the 1951 treaty, the United States and the Philippines commit to come to each other’s aid in case of an armed attack on a public vessel, troops or an airship. The US Department of State repeated its “ironclad” commitment this week.
DFA spokesperson Ma. Teresita Daza said the government was standing by the PCG report that the crew of one of its ships, the BRP Malapascua, suffered temporary blindness for 10 to 15 seconds after a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel twice aimed its laser on the bridge on Feb. 6.
It wasn’t ready to define the Chinese action as an “armed attack.”
The PCG vessel was supporting a Philippine Navy resupply mission to a military outpost at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, well within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The use of the MDT is “being talked about, but whether it is already at that state I think it’s a bit early,” Daza said during a press briefing on Thursday.
She said that discussions within the Philippine government on “when can it be activated is continuing.”
Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said early this week that the action by the CCG qualified as an armed attack for which the Philippines could invoke the defense treaty.
Deputy House Speaker Ralph Recto on Thursday cautioned against invoking the MDT over the “laser harassment.”
“It is a disproportionate response that will escalate things unnecessarily,” he said in a statement.
“I put my faith in the President that he has more than enough in his toolkit to respond to Chinese aggression, without need to send an SOS to the Americans,” he said in a statement.
President Marcos summoned China’s ambassador, Huang Xilian, to Malacañang following the incident to express “his serious concern over the increasing frequency and intensity of actions” by the Chinese against the PCG and Filipino fishermen.
Recto said there would likely be a “protracted war of nerves” with the Chinese over the government’s “reembracing” the United States.
“They will be throwing tantrums, like a jilted lover who has lost face. They probably felt that they’ve lost a concubine,” he said. “Expect more harassment. We should be prepared for them.”
China: Not military-grade
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin belied the PCG claim, saying that the CCG ship had no military-grade laser. What the Chinese ship used at the time were handheld lasers to determine the Philippine vessel’s speed and distance, he said.
Besides, Wang said, the PCG ship was entering Chinese waters without permission.
But PCG Commodore Jay Tarriela rejected his statement, saying it made no sense.
“It’s important to note that their vessels already have radars. Why would you do that, right? Why would you point those lasers to the bridge and the crew of the [Philippine] Coast Guard vessel?” Tarriela said in an interview with ANC on Thursday.
“They can deny that it’s not a [military-grade laser], but the mere fact that this kind of laser has that kind of intensity and impaired the vision of our crew, this is worrisome,” said the PCG adviser for maritime security.
It was not the first time that the Chinese used blinding beams of light against the PCG.
In June last year, a Chinese navy ship directed its searchlight at the BRP Habagat for 20 minutes and flashed “blue-colored lights with blinkers” at the tugboat’s bridge, which also resulted in momentary blindness and skin itchiness among the crew on duty, Tarriela said.
Tarriela said that the Chinese claim that Beijing has “indisputable sovereignty” over Ayungin Shoal and other parts of the country’s EEZ was unacceptable to begin with.
“Why are we going to believe the narrative of China that we are the ones lying and making up stories that our troops went blind,” he said. “If you listen to their first statement, they were actually claiming that we were the ones who intruded our own waters.”
‘Not how friends work’
In reaction to the laser-pointing incident, the Armed Forces of the Philippines told Beijing that it should “restrain its forces” from committing “provocative acts that will endanger lives” in the West Philippine Sea.
Acting Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. had said China’s action was “offensive and unsafe.”Daza also rejected the Chinese foreign ministry’s claims regarding the incident.
“The mere fact that they actually followed, shadowed, had dangerous maneuvers, and had challenging [radio] calls—this is not how friends work together,” she said.
Using the new direct communication line between the two countries’ foreign ministries for the first time, the Chinese side made the first call, telling Manila that the CCG had no military-grade laser on the ship that was involved in the incident, Daza said.
Just facts, good faith
In response, the DFA expressed its disappointment over the CCG’s actions especially coming just weeks after the President’s state visit to China when it looked like managing the maritime disputes was getting better.
Daza said they were happy to have this new line to China but communication between Manila and Beijing should be grounded on facts and good faith.
“Because if we do not deal with facts and it is not done in good faith and it is not to actually manage the disagreements within both countries, then what is the value of it?” Daza said.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario proposed that the Philippines lease advanced weapons systems to deter China’s “bullying.”
In a statement on Thursday, Del Rosario said the government should consider an “operational lease of defense assets”—in short, rent weapons, equipment and vehicles—from Philippine allies.
“[This] may allow us to obtain newer equipment at lesser cost and with faster delivery time. Operational leases may also give us more possibilities in terms of the types of defense assets to acquire,” Del Rosario said.