Philippines, US denounce China’s ‘gray-zone activities’ in contested waters

Jason Gutierrez and Basilio Sepe
Philippines, US denounce China’s ‘gray-zone activities’ in contested waters U.S. Navy sailors patrol the flight deck of the USS America amphibious assault ship during a port visit in Manila, March 21, 2023.
[Basilio Sepe/BenarNews]

Washington and Manila have accused Beijing of “gray zone activities,” or coercion, in the disputed South China Sea, including the “massing” of dozens of Chinese ships near a Philippine-occupied territory.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Manila’s defense officer-in-charge, Senior Undersecretary Carlito Galvez Jr. discussed the issue by telephone Monday night, saying such activities by China impeded other claimant states’ right to lawfully operate in the disputed waterway.

“The two leaders condemned the PRC’s gray-zone activities, which interfere with the livelihoods of local Philippine communities and the rights of other claimant states that seek to operate lawfully in the South China Sea consistent with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling,” said a U.S. Department of Defense readout of the phone meeting.

PRC refers to the People’s Republic of China. Gray zone activities are generally not explicit acts of war, but can be harmful to the security of a nation. The 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration recognized Manila’s rights over its 200-mile exclusive economic zone and invalidated China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Austin underscored Washington’s “unwavering alliance commitment” to Manila and stressed that a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty “extends to Philippine armed forces, aircraft and public vessels, including those of its Coast Guard, anywhere in the South China Sea.”

Both Austin and Galvez noted “with particular concern” China’s “massing of more than 40 vessels – including a PLA Navy ship – around Thitu Island earlier this month within the feature’s 12-nautical mile territorial sea.”

Thitu island is the international name of the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa island. It is the largest in the Philippine-occupied Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the contested Spratly islands. It serves as a local seat of government and is home to more than 400 civilians, including 70 children.

“The swarming of vessels falls on the heels of a dangerous incident last month, in which the PRC Coast Guard directed a military-grade laser against a Philippine vessel operating lawfully around Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal), temporarily blinding some of the crew,” the two leaders said.

The Philippine Coast Guard in February accused China of performing dangerous maneuvers and pointing a laser at one of its ships, causing temporary blindness to the crew.

The two countries’ defense officials also “discussed plans to conduct combined maritime activities in the South China Sea and agreed to review the full range of U.S.-Philippine maritime cooperation during the upcoming 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue.”

The foreign and defense ministers of both countries are set to meet at a yet-unspecified date. Their readout did not elaborate on the planned maritime activities in the South China Sea.

During a one-on-one meeting in early February in Manila, Austin and Galvez agreed to “restart joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea” between the two armed forces to address security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. Details about the planned activity have so far been scant.

Meanwhile, an American warship, the USS America, has docked in the Philippine capital for a goodwill visit.

The ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Shockey Snyder, said the ship was in Manila as part of a scheduled trip that was not connected to South China Sea concerns. He noted that all ships are free to navigate in the contested region.


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