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Sunday, June 30, 2024

The giant and the archipelago: Chinese attack on the Second Thomas Shoal and its implications

The giant and the archipelago: Chinese attack on the Second Thomas Shoal and its implications

The latest clash between the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and the Filipino sailors in the South China Sea on June 17, is testament to the fact that China continues to threaten the region.

“The strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept.” This famous age-old aphorism by Thucydides could not be more true as is evident from the recent confrontation between China and the Philippines. Clashes between China and its neighbors over sovereignty, resources, and security in the South China Sea have been a common phenomena since the 1970s. A “semi-enclosed body of water stretching in a Southwest to Northeast direction” including more than 200 islands, the South China Sea has always been embroiled in conflicts regarding its jurisdiction. Starting from the Chinese attack on the forces of the Republic of Vietnam in the Paracel Islands in 1974 and Fiery Cross Reef in 1988 to China’s military ouster of the Philippines from Mischief Reef in 1995, tensions have been mounting with each passing incident. China’s turn in 2009 toward an assertive, even aggressive approach in its efforts to control U.S. naval activities in the South China Sea resulted in new American attention. China’s claim to a historic right to jurisdiction over the waters of the South China Sea is undermined by overlapping claims maintained by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia as well as Taiwan. Thus it is proved that however long standing China’s claims of jurisdiction in the South China Sea may be, it is not exclusive or widely accepted by other states.

What exactly happened at the Second Thomas Shoal?

The latest clash between the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and the Filipino sailors in the South China Sea on June 17, is testament to the fact that China continues to threaten the region. The clash took place when Philippine forces attempted to resupply marines stationed on a derelict warship at the BRP Sierra Madre (LS57) at Ayungin Shoal (another name for the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea) amid Beijing’s stepping up efforts to assert its claims to the disputed area. China allegedly attacked a Philippines marine vessel with ‘bladed weapons’. China has even been designated as ‘pirates’ by an army personnel of the Philippines. The Philippines’ Defense chief said China deliberately used “aggressive and illegal force” to disrupt a resupply mission in the South China Sea. This “brutal assault” in the South China Sea is a major escalation in a festering dispute that threatens to drag the United States into another global conflict. The incident is the latest in a series of increasingly fraught confrontations in the resource-rich and strategically important waterway as Beijing is stepping up its efforts to push its claims to nearly all of the strategically located waterway.

Prior to this, the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff between the Philippine and Chinese civilian vessels constitutes an arch-typical international incident. China targeted the Philippines in naval brinkmanship. The standoff began on April 8, 2012, when a Philippine Air Force (PAF) reconnaissance plane spotted eight Chinese fishing boats around the shoal. China gained the upper hand as it forced the Philippines to back away from confronting the Chinese civilian presence. China thus forced the Philippines to reconsider before using force to resolve a matter of maritime jurisdiction claiming that those Chinese vessels were ‘in the area fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese maritime rights and interests.’ China also added that the Shoal is an integral part of Chinese territory.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea with its so-called nine-dash line, which overlaps the exclusive economic zones of rival claimants Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While the Scarborough Shoal lies within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), China argues its historical ties to the region, citing evidence of Chinese sailors visiting and mapping the shoal as far back as the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). In 2016, an international tribunal ruled largely in favor of the Philippines in its dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal, stating that China’s actions violated international law. Despite the ruling, China rejected the tribunal’s authority and chose to ignore its decision. The scenes captured in the latest footage of the recent incident shows how China has adopted new and far more openly aggressive tactics that appear calculated to test how the Philippines and its key defense ally- the United States – will respond.

Implications of the incident and the role of the U.S.:

Whatever happens at the South China Sea has profound implications for the US, which has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines that dates back decades. The United States has increased its military presence and naval activity in the region to counter China’s aggressive territorial claims and safeguard its own political and economic interests. Additionally the US has provided weapons and aid to nations opposing China’s territorial claims. The South China Sea is highly valuable for its substantial oil and natural gas reserves, rich fishing grounds and is also a major trade route. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, more than 21 percent of global trade, valued at $3.37 trillion, passes through these waters. Washington and Beijing are talking more regularly to avoid a conflict in the South China Sea despite their “contentious and competitive” relationship. The South China Sea has become a dangerous flash point, where Beijing’s claims are ratcheting up tensions with Taiwan and Philippines, as well as their most powerful ally, the US.

The Philippines is the United States’ oldest treaty ally in Asia and they share a mutual deep and long-standing political, economic, and social ties. On the domestic front, the Philippines has a democratic political system, and the U.S. security umbrella protects it from outside attack. Yet the country suffers from chronic political instability, which is manifested in periodic military rebellions and extralegal “people power” movements against incumbent governments. With its internal problems Manila has chosen to pursue a policy of leveraging its international relationships by seeking to regionalize the South China Sea dispute through ASEAN and by developing closer defense cooperation with the US. 


Amidst all the tension over disputed islands with the Philippines, the People’s Liberation Army has conducted drills in the South China Sea featuring landing ships. What we could make out of these ongoing incidents is that China, a major power, uses realpolitik to press its expansive claim in the South China Sea. On the other hand, the Philippines, a small power, adopts the liberal-legal approach that seeks to balance against China. Thus the potential for these kinds of hostilities will persist as long as China continues to increase its efforts to control the region and as other claimant countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, remain firm in asserting their right to control their respective claims in the South China Sea.

The Philippine submission: Third round of note-verbal battle?

The Philippine submission: Third round of note-verbal battle?

 The Philippines submitted an extended continental shelf claim in the East Sea 15 years after the deadline because the government under President Jr. Marcos is shifting its policy toward greater assertiveness and transparency in the region.

This move reflects a strategic change aimed at reinforcing the country's sovereignty and maritime rights amidst ongoing territorial disputes.

We respectfully introduce an article by Ambassador Nguyen Hong Thao, a Vietnamese diplomat and legal expert who has twice been a member of the International Law Commission of the United Nations, currently serving the term 2023-2027.

On 14 June 2024, the Philippines Permanent Mission in New York presented to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) a partial submission containing information on the outer limits of a portion of its continental shelf extending beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines used to measure the breadth of the territorial sea.

This submission is in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and pertains to the West Palawan Region (WPR). The submission coincided with the final day of the 34th session of the States Parties to the Law of the Sea (SPLOS), marking the 30th anniversary of UNCLOS's entry into force.

UNCLOS stipulates that the deadline for the submission of information on the outer limits of the continental shelf to the CLCS was before 13 May 2009 (See SPLOS/72). In the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea), Indonesia lodged its submissions on the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nm in the northwest area of Sumatra Island to the CLCS on 16 June 2008; Viet Nam's partial submission in the northern area of the East Sea (VN-N) on 6 May 2009; the joint submission from Malaysia and Viet Nam on 7 May 2009; and Malaysia's partial submission on 12 December 2019.

The Philippines submitted its first partial submission on the outer limits of its continental shelf outside the East Sea in the Benham Rise Region on 8 April 2009, which was favorably acted upon by the CLCS in its Recommendation issued on 12 April 2012. As a member state of UNCLOS, the Philippines has the right to implement Article 76 of the Convention and Annex I of the Rules of Procedure of the CLCS (CLCS/40, Rev. 1) for the extended continental shelf if the geographical and geological structures of the shelf meet the legal requirements. The Philippines has the right to have new submissions because it has provided the preliminary information before the deadline. 

Why has the Philippines submitted its extended continental shelf file in the East Sea 15 years after the Convention's deadline?

The answer can only come from the Philippine administration under the Marcos’ presidency, which has pursued a shift to a more pronounced transparency policy on the South China Sea. The Philippines’ submissions would have some calculations.

Firstly, the Marcos administration would aim to assert the validity of the Tribunal Award of 12 July 2016 on the Philippines vs. China case, which allows for the expansion of the continental shelf from the mainland while confining the maritime features in the Spratlys each to a maximum of 12 nautical miles of territorial waters.

Secondly, the submission would be designed to reject the validity of China's nine-dash line claim.

Thirdly, Manila would affirm the validity of the Philippines' archipelagic baseline of 2012, which has been revised to align more closely with UNCLOS by excluding the Kalayaan Area from the scope of an archipelagic state.

Fourthly, it would consider the possibility of invoking Article 5 of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), in which the US is obligated to protect Philippine armed forces, public vessels, aircraft (including those of its coast guard) from armed attack in the East Sea. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 19 June 2024 spoke with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique A. Manalo about China's actions against the Philippines in the East Sea "undermine regional peace and stability and underscored the United States.”

Fifthly, it would give facilitation to the stalled negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC). Last but not least, the move would leverage the presence of the Philippine member in the CLCS. Mr. Efren Perez Carandang, a member of the Commission for the term 2023-2028, was acknowledged for providing advice in the preparation of this submission.

The Philippines' submission may encounter several challenges.

First, the seabed geological conditions of the archipelagic state are unfavorable for defining the extension beyond its territorial sea 'throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin,' due to the presence of the Palawan Trench, which creates a disruption.

This may be why the Philippines has opted to use the method of drawing arcs not exceeding 60 nautical miles from the foot of the slope (FOS) point, in accordance with Paragraph 4(a)(ii) of Article 76, instead of the formula based on percentage of sediment thickness.

The submission acknowledges that this formula was not utilized due to insufficient sediment thickness data in the West Palawan Region (WPR).

Second, the southern part of the submission extends from the Sabah, which is subject to a sovereignty dispute with Malaysia and the Vietnam-Malaysia joint submission.

Third, the submission may potentially overlap with Vietnam's submission in the central region, where Vietnam declared the reservation of its sovereign rights in opposition to Malaysia's extended continental shelf in December 2019.

Fourth, the dispute over the sovereignty of the Spratly features remains unresolved, raising the question of maritime delimitation of the sea-bed of territorial seas of those features with the Philippine's continental shelf claims.  

Fifth, combining unilateral continental shelf claims with the 2016 ruling on a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea for features in the Spratly suggests that the East Sea may have high seas but lacks a seabed area designated as the common heritage of mankind. This situation poses challenges in establishing an appropriate marine management regime given the differing status of maritime zones.

The bright spot in the Philippines' submission is its acknowledgment of the existence of previous submissions by Vietnam and Malaysia, rather than rejecting them, and its willingness to discuss the delimitation of maritime boundaries with the relevant states. The submission has not named China for negotiations on the continental shelf.

The reactions of the interested states would be drastic. Malaysia maintains its claim to Sabah. Its note verbale on 27 June 20224 recalled that “The state of Sabah has and always been an integral part of Malaysia and has been recognized by the United Nations and the international community, as part of Malaysia, since the formation of the Federation of Malaysia on 16 September 1963.

The Republic of the Philippines claims sovereignty over Sabah is incompatible with its erga omnes obligation to recognise and uphold the legitimate exercise of the right of self – determination by the people of Sabah in 1963. Thus, it is clear that the Republic of the Philippines’ claim to Sabah has no basic whatsoever under international law”.   

China submitted preliminary survey findings on the outer limits of its continental shelf in the East China Sea to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) on 11 May 2009. However, in the East Sea, China has not shown an intention to claim an extended continental shelf. This stance could be explained by its expansive nine-dash line and Nanhai Zhudao, which would cover almost all the waters and seabed of the East Sea.

On 17 June 2024, China warned that “The Philippines’ unilateral submission on the extent of its undersea shelf in the East Sea infringes on China’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction, violates international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and goes against the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea.”

On the same day, clashes occurred between Philippine supply vessels and Chinese Coast Guard ships around the Second Thomas Shoal. A day later, on 18 June 2024, the Chinese note verbale consisted on the indisputable sovereignty over Nanhai Zhudao and the adjacent waters and it enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof.

On 20 June 2024, Vietnam declared that it reserves all its rights and interests under international law, especially UNCLOS 1982, and expressed its readiness to discuss with the Philippines to find and reach a solution that aligns with the interests of both countries.

Vietnam's reaction is likely to be more subdued, because its position is to grant the features in the Spratly Islands only a 12-mile territorial sea. Other overlapping continental shelf claims are not related to unresolved sovereignty issues. For that reason, the submission would signal the beginning of the third round of the note verbale battle of which the first and second rounds arose after 2009 and 2019 submissions respectively.

The maritime limits, including the overlapping outer limits of the continental shelf in the East Sea, with distances between opposite coasts of no more than 700 nautical miles, need to be agreed upon by the countries involved and are not under the jurisdiction of the CLCS.

In the immediate future, the Philippines may consider a  withdrawal from its objection to the Vietnam-Malaysia joint submission and negotiation with these two countries to find an acceptable solution.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

How to Respond to China’s Tactics in the South China Sea

How to Respond to China’s Tactics in the South China Sea

Beijing is testing the U.S.-Philippines alliance, and a new strategy is needed.

The odds of armed conflict in the South China Sea are high and rising. China’s relentless assertiveness against the Philippines—harassing ships inside Manila’s internationally recognized Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), most notably at Second Thomas Shoal and Scarborough Shoal—has led to a situation where war in the South China Sea now seems more likely than at any other Indo-Pacific flash point, including the Taiwan Strait and Korean Peninsula.

To be sure, the Philippines’ security alliance with the United States has so far deterred China from more serious attacks on the Philippine military or other government assets. But the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty—which commits Washington to come to Manila’s aid if the latter is under military attack—has utterly failed to deter Beijing from escalating its coercive gray-zone tactics—aggressive actions designed to irreversibly change the status quo without resorting to lethal force. These tactics have included ramming, shadowing, blocking, encircling, firing water cannons, and using military-grade lasers against civilian ships and military vessels. China also relies on its formidable coast guard and so-called fishing militia—comprised of fishermen who are trained and equipped by the military—to patrol, loiter in, and occupy disputed areas, establishing a quasi-permanent presence that the targeted country cannot easily dislodge.

On June 15, moreover, Beijing is reportedly planning to implement a new policy that would authorize the Chinese coast guard to detain foreigners crossing into waters claimed by China. These waters include most of the South China Sea—based on Beijing’s own expansive historical claims rather than international law, which in this case is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. (For comparison, imagine if Germany claimed the entire North Sea, or if the United States claimed the entire Caribbean right up to the South American coast.)

In the past, China has attempted to cordon off its claims with floating barriers and, most recently, is accused by Manila of building an artificial island at Sabina Shoal—150 kilometers (about 93 miles) from the Philippines’ Palawan Island, but 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) from the closest point in China. A well-informed source who asked to remain anonymous told me that Manila is already blocked from accessing approximately 30 percent of its recognized EEZ due to Chinese salami-slicing tactics. Absent an effective response, this percentage will only rise in the coming years.

In fact, China has the Philippines in an ever-tightening stranglehold that is increasingly compromising the latter’s sovereignty and territorial integrity at sea. If international law is to be upheld and borders are to remain inviolable, the United States must do more to help the Philippines. Yet neither Manila nor Washington seem to have a viable plan to counter Beijing’s successful gray-zone tactics.

Facing an increasingly desperate situation, in March, the Philippines announced a Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept. Public details are scant, but it seems to be a new defense strategy that transitions away from Manila’s traditionally army-centric model—informed by a long history of invasions and occupations—toward upgrading the navy and coast guard to counter China at sea. Full funding for the new strategy is still pending in parliament. Regardless, the concept seems to ignore the equally important air force, and the entire process will take many years, if not decades, to implement.

In the meantime, Manila is pressing forward with three other efforts.

First, it is deepening its alliance with Washington. Earlier this month, the two countries carried out their largest-ever annual military drills, which included exercising the defense of an island chain in the northern Philippines (just 125 miles south of Taiwan) as well as a practice launch of an anti-ship cruise missile to sink a decommissioned ship. Since coming into office in 2022, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos has raised the number of military bases that the U.S. military can temporarily use from five to nine, in line with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in 2014.

Second, the Philippines has been forging ahead on a number of security drills and agreements with other countries in the region. Last month, for example, Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and the United States conducted joint exercises within Manila’s EEZ for the first time. Members of the group—known as the “new Quad” or “Squad”—are also negotiating new bilateral security agreements. Japan and the Philippines are discussing a reciprocal troop access agreement that should be completed by July. The Philippines and Australia have upgraded cooperation in maritime security and elevated their partnership to “strategic” following Marcos’s visit to Canberra in February. The Philippines is also receiving some arms assistance from India, such as a recent delivery of much-needed BrahMos anti-ship cruise missiles.

Finally, Manila recently adopted a strategy of “assertive transparency” toward Chinese encroachments into its EEZ. Philippine ship crews are now recording each incident of Chinese coercion and publicizing it for the world to see. The idea is that Beijing will no longer be able to deny its actions as it has done in the past—and perhaps be shamed into adhering to international law.

For its part, the United States has reiterated its “ironclad” commitment to the Philippines multiple times.

The problem is that the Cold War-era U.S.-Philippines treaty did not foresee the kinds of gray-zone tactics and hybrid threats that have become the modus operandi for revisionist states in recent years, whether in the South China Sea or on NATO’s eastern flank. Washington has not elaborated on what types of Chinese action might trigger U.S. intervention in support of its ally. The Biden administration has consistently noted that triggers include “armed attacks” on Philippine military or coast guard vessels, but it has not said what constitutes such an attack. Thus far, China’s aggressive but nonlethal actions against the Philippines do not appear to qualify.

As much as Manila, Washington, and their partners are now working to counter China, none of their steps has been effective in deterring Beijing’s increasing encroachments. What can the Philippines and the United States do—and is it even possible to restore deterrence in the South China Sea?

One option is to revise the U.S.-Philippines treaty to reflect modern gray-zone threats. Rather than vaguely highlighting an “armed attack” as the prompt for U.S. military intervention, Manila and Washington could broadly note that gray-zone activities could or would count as armed attacks.

During his visit to the Pentagon last month, for example, Marcos specified that “if any Filipino serviceman is killed by at attack from any foreign power, then that is time to invoke the [treaty].” The two countries could further broaden the category of assets covered by the treaty to include the civilian ships that regularly resupply Philippine troops stationed on the Sierra Madre, a World War II-era landing ship that Manila intentionally ran aground at Second Thomas Shoal in 1999. China might think twice about violating a revised, more encompassing defense clause.

There are other ways for Washington to clarify its policy in the South China Sea. In July 2020, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the United States recognized the legality and integrity of the sea’s EEZs in line with U.N. laws and the 2016 international arbitration ruling that rejected China’s expansive claims. To date, however, the United States has not taken an official position on the disputed territories within the South China Sea, perhaps to avoid antagonizing China further.

By contrast, the Obama administration clarified in 2012 that Washington recognized the Senkaku Islands as belonging to Japan, not China, in their East China Sea standoff, and that any attack on the islands would trigger Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, meaning that the United States would be required to respond. Manila would obviously appreciate a similar clarification, which would signal to Beijing that Washington now considers attacks on the Philippines’ recognized EEZ to be direct assaults on its sovereignty and territorial integrity, which are already covered by the treaty.

Another option is for the U.S. military to play a more direct role in the region. Asia security expert Blake Herzinger recently argued that one way of bolstering deterrence and repelling China’s gray-zone tactics is to remove the Sierra Madre and replace it with a combined forward operating base used by both Philippine forces and the U.S. Marine Corps. Other researchers have argued for varying levels of U.S. involvement without establishing a base—such as combined naval or coast guard patrols—with the same aim of enhancing deterrence.

An intriguing technological solution might be to leverage the U.S. military’s ongoing Replicator program, scheduled to become available by August 2025. A product of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, Replicator seeks to quickly produce thousands of air and naval drones to make up for numerical shortfalls against the Chinese military. Although few details are public, the U.S. Defense Department is already introducing Replicator drones in the Indo-Pacific, and it may eventually be capable of swarming targets and possibly conducting a range of gray-zone activities of its own, though its capabilities for now remain classified.

Uncrewed systems such as Replicator could keep tit-for-tat encounters just below the threshold of triggering a broader war, especially because China’s own defense projects could also take the human element out of clashes at sea by using robotic and artificial intelligence-enabled warfare. Put another way, Replicator could help reset the escalation ladder and give China, the United States, and the Philippines greater space to negotiate after incidents.

Washington could also consider creating a linkage between China’s gray-zone actions against a U.S. ally and other areas of the U.S.-China relationship. That would signal to Beijing that its encroachments on the Philippines come with costs. These could include economic sanctions, postponement or termination of diplomatic negotiations, or changes to the U.S. military posturing elsewhere in the region. Imposing costs for aggressive actions would fit neatly into the Biden administration’s so-called integrated deterrence strategy, which seeks to leverage the collective, interagency strength of the United States, its allies, and its partners to respond to aggression.

As for collective action by the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) to challenge Chinese encroachments, the track record of the past nearly 30 years is not encouraging—even though several other members, including Vietnam and Malaysia, are also facing Chinese incursions into their waters. Since 1996, ASEAN has been working on a future code of conduct for the region, which might call for an end to militarization, land reclamation, and seizures of disputed features. However, this would entirely depend on the bloc’s success in negotiating the code with Beijing, which has shown no inclination to compromise on its view that it owns most of the South China Sea. Bilateral negotiations would likely founder for similar reasons.

Finally, Washington and Manila could simply stay the course. This would mean continuing to bolster the alliance through expansion of the existing defense cooperation agreement, more focused annual military exercises, and other engagements, as well as through helping Manila to build its own military capabilities and expose China’s bad behavior to the world. But none of these measures have been successful against gray-zone tactics so far, and any future success is likely to take more time as Beijing continues to eat away at Manila’s EEZ.

The best option might be to stay the course on U.S.-Philippines alliance-building but add new features, such as revising the treaty to reflect gray-zone realities, tie into the Replicator program, and impose costs for China’s behavior via other parts of the U.S.-China relationship. Doing these things now should give the Philippines the breathing room that it needs to modernize and professionalize its military with U.S. assistance, helping to reestablish deterrence and lessen the risk of war in the years to come.


Monday, May 27, 2024

Philippines protests China's unilateral South China Sea fishing ban

Philippines protests China's unilateral South China Sea fishing ban

The Philippines rejected China's unilateral fishing ban in the South China Sea, as tensions continued to roil in the disputed waterway.

In a statement on Monday, the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs said China unilaterally informed the Philippines of its imposition of a fishing ban that would last till Sept. 16, and that Manila has lodged a protest.

"Through a diplomatic note," the statement says, "the Philippines protested the ban insofar as it includes the Philippines maritime zones over which the Philippines has sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction."

China's fishing ban will cover "areas of the South China Sea north of the 12 degrees North latitude," according to the department.

"The Philippines stressed that the unilateral imposition of the fishing moratorium raises tensions in the West Philippine and South China seas. It directly contravenes the understanding between President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. and Chinese President Xi Jinping to manage differences through diplomacy and dialogue and to de-escalate the situation at sea," the foreign affairs statement says.

Relations between Manila and Beijing have been deteriorating due to disputes in the South China Sea.


Saturday, May 18, 2024

Philippines to buy five patrol boats from Japan amid South China Sea tensions

Philippines to buy five patrol boats from Japan amid South China Sea tensions

The Philippines will purchase five patrol vessels from Japan amid growing tensions in the South China Sea.

The deal will be financed through a Japanese loan worth about 23.9 billion pesos ($415 million) and was signed by Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo and Japanese Ambassador Endo Kazuya, the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department said in a statement on its website Friday.

"This occasion signifies not only the deepening of bilateral relations between the Philippines and Japan, but also underscores our unwavering commitment to enhance our maritime safety capabilities for the benefit of our nation and the broader maritime community,” Manalo said.

The Philippines is beefing up its naval resources as tensions escalate with China over the South China Sea. Japan, together with Australia and the United States affirmed their position in April that a 2016 South China Sea arbitral tribunal award that favored the Philippines over China in their maritime dispute as final and legally binding.

Under the loan program, Japan previously agreed to provide the Southeast Asian country with 10 44-meter-long patrol ships in 2013 and two 97-meter-long vessels in 2016.

Deliveries of the just announced five ships are expected to take place between 2027 and 2028.

Last December, the Philippine Coast Guard said it would build a facility in Subic Bay of Luzon Island for use by the procured large patrol ships.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

A code of conduct won’t solve the South China Sea crisis

A code of conduct won’t solve the South China Sea crisis


Negotiations over a “code of conduct” (COC) in the South China Sea between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China waxed and waned for two decades. Last July, in a bid to expedite an agreement, a three-year deadline was agreed to conclude the talks. 

Nothing comes easy in this multifaceted dispute. Even the title of the agreement to hurry along the talks – Guidelines for Accelerating the Early Conclusion of an Effective and Substantive COC – arguably reflects the urgency but also the complexity.

China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN member states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – each have overlapping maritime claims to the South China Sea. The negotiations for the code, however, involved all ten ASEAN members with its consensus model and China. 

Two major points will likely derail the objective of accelerating negotiations for a code to manage the South China Sea disputes peacefully.

The first issue is the state of the talks themselves, where trust between the parties is plainly lacking. ASEAN negotiators privately explain that even agreeing on the geographical area the code should cover – termed the Zone of Applicability – has proven difficult because of the different parts claimed in the South China Sea. Whereas officials on the Chinese side believe some ASEAN states are asking for the sky – i.e., demanding China to give up its sovereignty in the South China Sea. Only then, ASEAN negotiators see China changing the goalposts during the negotiations.

But not all blame is sheeted to China. Some ASEAN members are seen as laggards in the negotiations, not fully committed to the process, not believing they have much at stake in the disputes. One ASEAN negotiator explained that some ASEAN negotiators turn up ill-prepared, often needing to consult their capitals for instructions on almost every discussion point, hampering progress, despite meetings being held five and six times annually. Wry humour has taken hold, with jokes about another agreement between ASEAN and China within the next few years to “Accelerate Further the Already Accelerating Process for the Early Conclusion of an Effective and Substantive COC”.

The second issue concerns the quality of the outcome. There are doubts whether China will be willing to sign a legally binding agreement, given that it has already dismissed the outcome of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in 2016 against its claims in the South China Sea. Should that hurdle be overcome, there are concerns about implementation of the code. Will there be an effective mechanism to monitor and enforce any violation? 

If not, what does the code amount to? And also, given that ASEAN operates with a consensus decision-making process, will the deadline push ASEAN members to water down the substance of the agreement?

Talks on the code of conduct, it must be acknowledged, are only part of the broader ASEAN engagement with China on the South China Sea. ASEAN’s efforts with China stretch back years, to 1990 when Indonesia held the first workshop on the South China Sea involving the different claimants. In the decades since, there have been efforts to engage in joint cooperation on extracting resources and protecting the environment in the disputed waters. 

Yet, 34 years on, militarisation has been the dominant theme. China’s artificial islands bristle with military facilities and long runways. Beijing has adopted a more aggressive approach to asserting its claims, lasing, using water cannons, and ramming against other claimants’ boats. Vietnam has expanded its presence and deployed missiles. The Philippines is seeking to fortify its position.

So setting a deadline for negotiations on a code of conduct doesn’t necessarily hasten an agreement. Meantime, ASEAN claimants should continue to build up their capabilities and work with other external powers, such as Australia and Japan, to defend their maritime interests. Sometimes, the potential ability to inflict military pain on the other party may be just the instrument for diplomacy to work well. 


China caught building new 'artificial island' in South China Sea strip as tensions explode

China caught building new 'artificial island' in South China Sea strip as tensions explode

China claims sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea and has been at odds with several countries, including the Philippines and Taiwan, for decades.

China has been laying the groundwork to build a new artificial island in the contested South China Sea, according to the Philippines.

Jay Tarriela, the head of Manila's Coast Guard, told the press on Monday that his agency is committed to keeping Beijing from "carrying out a successful reclamation of Sabina Shoal."

The shoal, also known as Xianbin Reef in China, is located in the Spratly Islands and is included in the Philippines's exclusive economic zone.

Sabina Shoal has been playing a crucial role in Manila's resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre warship, which the Philippines ran aground in 1999 to use as an outpost in the area.

Philippines leader President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. confirmed that a Coast Guard vessel had been deployed to the area to "monitor the supposed illegal activities of China, creating an artificial island by destroying coral reefs."

The force also released video it recorded last month allegedly showing large deposits of crushed corals sufficient to affect the elevation of the shoal's sandbars.

Beijing has been pursuing a project of land reclamation for over 14 years, building an estimated seven artificial islands across the Spratly Islands.

Some of the man-made atolls have also been militarised despite President Xi Jinping pledging they wouldn't be to former US president Barack Obama.

Beijing, however, has rejected Manila's claims and accused the government of trying to "vilify" China amid a period of growing tensions between the two nations.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said: "The Philippines has repeatedly spread rumours, deliberately vilified China and tried to mislead the international community. None of those attempts will succeed."

Huge civilian Filipino flotilla heads to disputed shoal to ‘assert sovereign rights’

Huge civilian Filipino flotilla heads to disputed shoal to ‘assert sovereign rights’

Philippines coast guard and navy watch as wooden boats head to Scarborough shoal to place buoys and hand food packs to local fishers

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Philippines Probes Alleged Chinese Disinformation Campaign Over South China Sea

Philippines Probes Alleged Chinese Disinformation Campaign Over South China Sea


The Philippines said Monday it was officially investigating allegations that Chinese embassy staff in Manila had engaged in a disinformation campaign related to the South China Sea.

The move followed a call by the Philippine national security adviserurging the government to expel embassy staffers for allegedly recording a phone conversation with a senior Filipino commander about military resupply missions to a disputed shoal.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs will look into any reports of illegal and unlawful activities by diplomatic officials, and undertake necessary action in line with existing laws and regulations,” the department said in a statement Monday.

While foreign diplomats are “accorded necessary liberties” in conducting their duties, they are expected to perform them “with the highest standards of integrity” and professionalism, it said.

Last week, top Philippine defense and security officials demanded an investigation into whether China had violated Manila’s wiretapping laws during the alleged phone call between a Chinese official and the Filipino government military commander, Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, who oversees the defense of Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal, among other contested South China Sea features.

Carlos, the head of the Philippine military’s Western Command (WESCOM), allegedly agreed with an unidentified Chinese official to a “new model” for arranging for notifications of resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal, according to a transcript released by the Chinese embassy to select news outlets.

Last week, Philippine officials announced that Carlos had gone on leave and was temporarily replaced.

Manila maintains the BRP Sierra Madre, an old ship grounded at Ayungin Shoal, to serve as the country’s outpost in the contested region. It is critical because Ayungin lies near Mischief Reef, an artificial island where Beijing built a naval base in the 1990s.

WESCOM oversees Manila’s defense of the Palawan and Kalayaan islands, including the disputed Spratly chain.

On Friday, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry hit back at the call from Eduardo Año, the Philippine national security adviser, that Chinese embassy staffers be expelled.

“The Philippines’ response shows exactly their guilty conscience in the face of facts and evidence and how exasperated and desperate they have become,” spokesman Lin Jian said during a regular press conference.

“We ask the Philippines to ensure that Chinese diplomats can carry out their duty normally, and to stop provocations and infringements,” he said. “The Philippines needs to quit denying the facts and must not make reckless moves that will only backfire on the Philippines itself.”