Chinese envoy meets Philippine defense chief amid South China Sea controversy

BenarNews staff
Chinese envoy meets Philippine defense chief amid South China Sea controversy Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. shakes hands with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian before a closed-door meeting in Manila, July 6, 2023.
[Handout photo/Philippine Department of National Defense]

Updated at 10:23 p.m. ET Time on 2023-07-07

China’s envoy to the Philippines met with the Filipino defense chief on Thursday amid bilateral tensions, a day after Manila accused Beijing of harassing its ships in the disputed South China Sea.

Specific details of their meeting were not made public, but Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. and Chinese envoy Huang Xilian discussed ways to improve defense relations, statements from both sides said.

Their discussion focused on “[the] existing bilateral mechanism and dialogue platforms” earlier agreed to by both nations, the Philippine Department of National Defense said in a statement.

“The Philippines’ defense capability building efforts will always be in line with the Philippines’ national interests,” Teodoro told the Chinese envoy, his office said.

Huang, in a statement, said that he and Teodoro “had a constructive discussion on promoting defense and military relations between China and the Philippines, and maintaining peace and stability in the region.”

On Wednesday, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) accused China of harassing two of its ships supporting a Philippine Navy mission to deliver food and supplies to troops stationed at a military outpost in the South China Sea, the second such incident in less than five months.

The Philippine vessels were escorting civilian boats with navy personnel on board when China Coast Guard ships confronted them on June 30 near Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the PCG said.

Commodore Jay Tarriela, the coast guard’s spokesman for the West Philippine Sea, said Thursday that two Chinese vessels “carried out dangerous maneuvers” and got as close as 100 yards.

“The commanding officers of the Philippine Coast Guard vessels were forced to stop their engine or to decrease their speed for them to prevent the possible collision with these Chinese Coast Guard vessels that were blocking them,” Tarriela told local cable television channel ANC.

“When we reached the distance [of] 2.9 nautical miles [away from the destination] we also encountered six Chinese maritime militia [boats] also attempting to block the entrance of the Philippine Coast Guard as it approached Ayungin shoal,” he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the PCG vessels intruded into waters off Ren’ai Reef,  the Chinese name for Ayungin Shoal. 

“The Ren’ai Reef is part of China’s Nansha Islands,” he said at a regular press conference on Thursday. “In accordance with the law, the Chinese Coast Guard vessel carried out law enforcement activities to uphold China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime order. The Chinese side’s maneuvers were professional and restrained.”

US criticizes ‘risky’ behavior

In a call on Thursday night, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin assured his Filipino counterpart Teodoro Jr. that Washington was prepared to back the Philippines in case of any attack in the sea region.

Secretary Austin noted with concern the [China’s] recent coercive and risky operational behavior directed against Philippine vessels operating safely and lawfully in the South China Sea, including around Second Thomas Shoal,” Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Paty Ryder said in a read-out of the conversation.

Austin stressed the U.S.’ commitment to its decades-old Mutual Defense Treaty which “extends to Philippine public vessels, aircraft, and armed forces – to include those of the coast guard – in the Pacific, including anywhere in the South China Sea,” Ryder said.

Austin and Teodoro “reaffirmed their commitment to upholding the rules-based order and supporting the livelihoods of local Philippine communities and other claimant states that seek to conduct lawful maritime activities in the South China Sea, consistent with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Ruling,” he said.

China asserts most of the sea as its sovereign territory, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have territorial claims. Beijing has for years militarized artificial islands, while deploying coast guard boats, navy vessels, and a state-backed maritime militia around disputed areas.

In 2016, an international arbitration court ruled in favor of the Philippines and against China’s sweeping claims, but Beijing has refused to acknowledge the ruling.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs on Thursday declined comment on the fresh incident, but said that it had filed a total of 97 notes verbale, or protests against China, relating to perceived harassment in the South China Sea since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office last year.

The incident is the latest in a growing number of aggressive actions by China in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways that also has an abundance of natural resources.

In February, the Philippines protested a similar incident when the Chinese Coast Guard pointed a laser at one of its coast guard ships, causing temporary blindness to its crew.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said Friday 48 Chinese fishing vessels have been “swarming” Iroquois Reef, located south of the oil and gas-rich Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea, according to recent aerial patrols.

“Recto Bank is a vital feature within the Philippine’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and China must cease its swarming of vessels to respect our sovereign rights”, said AFP Western Command spokesman Commander Ariel Coloma in a statement.

Jeoffrey Maitem and Gerard Carreon in Manila contributed to this report.

This story was updated to include comments from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the AFP Western Command.


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