Philippine and Chinese ships on Wednesday staged the first joint drill between their coast guards in waters off Manila in the South China Sea, where both countries have rival territorial claims, officials said.
A Chinese Coast Guard ship with pennant number 5204 and the BRP Tubbataha, a 44-meter (144-foot) multi-role response Philippine vessel, took part in the exercises aimed at achieving “interoperability at sea,” the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said.
Filipino and Chinese personnel were given a scenario where a vessel caught fire in its cargo hold while sailing in waters near Manila. Both coast guard ships deployed inflatable boats along with rescue swimmers to save the mock victims, the PCG said.
The rescued people were then transferred to a third vessel with a medical team onboard for medical assessment and treatment. Eventually, the “troubled” boat was declared out of danger, with no “casualties” recorded.
“The activity allowed Chinese and Filipino personnel to exercise interoperability and strengthen their capabilities in responding to such crises,” the Philippine Coast Guard said in a statement.
The joint maritime drills were part of a weeklong program of activities tied to a port call in Manila by the Chinese coast guard that are aimed at building mutual trust and cooperation and promote “maritime security and maritime law enforcement in the West Philippine Sea,” it added, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
The joint drills have come under criticism from Philippine nationalist groups, which have questioned why Manila was rolling out the red carpet for Beijing, whose ships have been known to harass Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea.
The drill came months after Manila filed a diplomatic protest when a Chinese trawler rammed into a Filipino fishing boat near Recto Bank in the disputed maritime region, leaving 22 fishermen adrift in the open sea for hours before they were rescued by a Vietnamese ship.
The incident caused a diplomatic tussle, with Manila issuing strongly worded statements. However, President Rodrigo Duterte, whose foreign policy has been drifting towards China and away from the Philippines’ longtime military ally, the United States, later said there was nothing Manila could do against the Asian military superpower.
He had also set aside a 2016 decision by an international arbitration verdict that ruled in favor of the Philippines by invalidating Beijing’s vast claims in the potentially mineral-rich South China Sea.
Duterte has defended his actions and said Manila could not risk war with Beijing, which has claimed to have installed missiles as well as militarized islands it claims in the sea.
Sen. Leila de Lima, a top opposition leader and vocal critic of Duterte, said Manila had practically rolled out the red carpet to the Chinese coast guard by welcoming its commander for bilateral talks in Manila this week with the Philippine coast guard.
“Imagine our coast guard discussing protocols at sea with the very people who regularly intimidate our own fishermen, in our own territory?” de Lima said.
Filipino officials welcomed the Chinese crew, led by Chinese Coast Guard chief Maj. Gen. Wang Zhongcai when they arrived earlier this week.
Beijing claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to the maritime region.