Philippine leader orders probe into collisions with Chinese ships in EEZ

Camille Elemia
Philippine leader orders probe into collisions with Chinese ships in EEZ A Philippine official speaks at a joint press conference — in response to the collisions between Chinese and Filipino vessels in the disputed territories on the South China Sea — at the National Security Council Headquarters in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Oct. 23, 2023
Gerard Carreon/BenarNews

Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. convened a high-level national security meeting on Monday, a day after unprecedented collisions were reported between Chinese and Filipino vessels near a disputed atoll in the South China Sea.

Manila’s foreign office also summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to complain about the two incidents on Sunday in the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal. His deputy, Zhou Zhiyong, showed up in his place to receive the Philippines’ 465th complaint since 2020 over China’s activity in those contested waters.

Both sides released photos and videos showing standoffs between vessels and blamed each other for the incidents. There were no reports of injuries in either of the incidents on Sunday.

At the meeting on Monday, Marcos “instructed the Philippine Coast Guard to conduct an investigation, as mandated by international maritime laws, into the events that transpired during the mission to Ayungin Shoal,” the presidential press office said in a statement.

“The incident, brought about by dangerous, illegal, and reckless maneuvers by vessels of the China Coast Guard, caused damage to a Philippine vessel within our exclusive economic zone and is being taken seriously at the highest level of government.”

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, played down the incidents as “a minor collision.” Its spokesperson, Mao Ning, claimed that the China Coast Guard was lawfully preventing Filipino boats from transporting supplies to an “illegally grounded” warship in Ayungin Shoal.

In recent months, the Philippines and China have traded increasingly tense barbs over the disputed waters, with Filipino officials claiming their resupply missions to its military outpost at Ayungin are harassed and hampered by China, which maintains that its actions are lawful.

Chinese coast guard and maritime militia ships are often seen patrolling waters and trying to block Philippine vessels in the Spratly Islands, an island chain that includes the Second Thomas Shoal and is located some 700 miles (1,120 km) from the Chinese island of Hainan and about 125 miles (201 km) from the Philippine island province of Palawan.

A Philippine-flagged boat is blocked by a China Coast Guard vessel during an incident that resulted in a collision between the two vessels in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, Oct. 22, 2023. [China Coast Guard/Handout via Reuters]

Ma. Teresita Daza, a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs, said Monday that Manila was “making full use of diplomatic processes” and “exercising all possible actions available to us.”

“That includes summoning the Chinese ambassador this morning,” she told a news conference.

According to Ray Powell, an analyst at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, Manila “has embarked on a tactic of assertive transparency” in reporting incidents in disputed waters.

“It has become normal … the idea that a large country can blockade the outpost of a smaller country without serious consequences,” Powell told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news service affiliated with BenarNews.

“What is new is that the Philippines is now showing the world what has been happening under our noses for many years, and the world will need to decide what to do about that.”
Almost immediately after the incidents on Sunday, the Philippine Armed Forces posted photos and video clips on social media that were recorded by their cameramen, as well as drone footage to accompany official statements.

One of the photos clearly showed three Philippine ships being surrounded by eight China Coast Guard vessels.

This tactic will help “strengthen national resilience, build international support and impose reputational costs on China,” Powell said.

“If other countries follow suit, it will force China to recalculate whether the cost it's now paying for its gray zone tactics are worth whatever benefits it hopes to receive for them,” the analyst added.

‘We deserve undistorted answers’

The latest flare-up came as China and the Philippines were negotiating a proposed “code of conduct” to prevent armed conflict in the South China Sea. The Philippine defense chief said the latest incident raised questions about China’s credibility in those talks.

“What kind of good faith can we expect from them?” Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. said at a press conference following the president’s meeting with national security officials. “What kind of message is this signaling? I want to know. And we deserve undistorted answers, the truth from the government of China.”

For the Filipino side, however, at least one of the collisions was grave enough that its wooden supply boat had to abandon its resupply missions and transfer some of its crews to the nearby coast guard ship.

The atoll is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, but China lays claims over an expansive area on the South China Sea that includes the shoal.

Various other nations also claim jurisdiction over the Spratly Islands.

In July 2016, a Hague tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and invalidated China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. Beijing, however, has ignored the ruling, citing history to insist on its claims.

International reactions

Meanwhile, the United States responded to the incidents by reiterating American support for the Philippines, its traditional ally, and condemning China’s actions which, the U.S. State Department said, undermined regional stability.

The Canadian Embassy in Manila said China’s actions “are unjustified” and that Ottawa stands in “full unity with the Philippines in defense of its territorial integrity and the upholding of international law.”

“China has no lawful claim to the West Philippine Sea. Its actions are incompatible with the obligations of a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” it said. “Continuing acts of intimidation and coercion undermine safety, stability, and security across the region and increase the risk of miscalculation.”

The envoys of Japan, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, and the European Union also released statements expressing concerns over the incident.

Gerard Carreon and Jojo Riñoza from Manila and Jeoffrey Maitem from Davao City, southern Philippines, contributed to this report. Radio Free Asia (RFA) also contributed to it.


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