Members of the Philippine Coast Guard participate in exercises near Pag-asa Island in the South China Sea, in this undated photo. Photo Credit: Philippine Coast Guard handout

By J.C. Gotinga

The Philippines on Monday accused Chinese ships of harassing its coast guard in the South China Sea, with Manila calling it a “blatant infringement’ of sovereignty and the foreign secretary using profanity to demand that Beijing withdraw vessels from his country’s exclusive economic zone. 

Between Jan. 1 and March 18, Philippine maritime patrols had spotted “hundreds of Chinese vessels” in parts of the South China Sea that Manila claims as territory, including Pag-asa, Subi and Loaita islands, Lankiam Cay, Second Thomas Shoal, Jackson Atoll and Scarborough Shoal, the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. 

The DFA said it “protested the shadowing, blocking, dangerous maneuver, and radio challenges by the Chinese Coast Guard of Philippine Coast Guard vessels conducting legitimate maritime patrols and training in the vicinity of Bajo de Masinloc on 24 to 25 April 2021.”

Bajo de Masinloc is Manila’s name for Scarborough Shoal, which lies 118 nautical miles west of the Philippine island of Luzon within the contested Spratly Islands and the nation’s 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The DFA said it also protested “the incessant, illegal, prolonged, and increasing presence of Chinese fishing vessels and maritime militia vessels in Philippine maritime zones.” 

Manila also rejected an earlier statement by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin about Beijing’s claims to the maritime region.

“China enjoys sovereignty over the Nansha islands including Zhongye [Pag-asa] Island and Zhongsha islands including Huangyan Island [Scarborough Shoal] and their adjacent waters and exercises jurisdiction in relevant waters. We urge the relevant side to respect China’s sovereignty and rights and interests, and stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes,” Wang had said on April 26.

On Monday, the DFA said the Philippines had “sovereignty and jurisdiction” over Scarborough Shoal and a portion of the Spratlys, adding that the Coast Guard’s maritime patrols and exercises were a “legitimate and routine act … in its territory and territorial waters.

“China has no law enforcement rights in these areas. The presence of Chinese Coast Guard vessels in the Philippines’ territorial waters of Pag-asa islands and Bajo de Masinloc and exclusive economic zone raises serious concern. The unauthorized and lingering presence of these vessels is a blatant infringement of Philippine sovereignty.”

The DFA’s statement was the latest in a growing list of formal protests over the presence of Chinese ships in Philippine waters.

Manila has been lodging daily protests with Beijing since March when it called out the presence of about 200 ships suspected to be manned by Beijing’s maritime militia at Whitsun Reef within the Philippine EEZ.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond on Monday to a BenarNews request for comment.

Locsin criticism

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., meanwhile, ripped into China’s actions in a profanity-laden statement on his personal Twitter account. 

“China, my friend, how politely can I put it? Let me see… O … Get the [expletive] out. What are you doing to our friendship?” Locsin tweeted Monday. 

Later, Manila’s top diplomat referred to President Rodrigo Duterte’s September 2020 speech before the United Nations where he invoked a 2016 arbitral award, which declared the Philippines’ claim to an EEZ in the South China Sea valid over China’s sweeping claim. 

Since taking power in 2016, Duterte has fostered friendlier ties between the Philippines and China and has refrained from discussing the ruling.

In a televised speech last week, Duterte said China was “a good friend” and that he wanted no “trouble” or “war.” But, he also said, he would not order patrols to stop in the South China Sea despite Beijing’s demands. 

‘Defend what is rightfully ours’

Responding to claims of dissonance between the president and his defense and foreign secretaries, defense chief Delfin Lorenzana said his pronouncements “echo the stand” of Duterte, adding that Manila’s patrols in the South China Sea would continue. 

“President Duterte’s orders to us have been very firm and straightforward: Defend what is rightfully ours without going to war and maintain the peace in the seas,” Lorenzana said. 

“While we acknowledge that China’s military capability is more advanced than ours, this does not deter us from defending our national interest, and our dignity as a people, with all that we have,” Lorenzana said.

Manila has been ramping up its non-military presence in waters that it claims in the South China Sea through its coast guard, fisheries bureau and maritime police. Last week, these agencies carried out a series of drills in the South China Sea including around Scarborough Shoal. 

Meanwhile, the China Coast Guard, a unit linked to the Chinese military, has maintained a constant presence at Scarborough Shoal since 2012, following a standoff with the Philippine Navy.

In that time, China’s Coast Guard ships have barred Filipino fishermen from dropping anchor inside the lagoon which offers safe harbor during bad weather. Filipino fishermen who used to fish at Scarborough Shoal have reported a roughly 80 percent decline in their catch since the Chinese takeover. 

In addition, China’s recent law authorizing its Coast Guard to fire at perceived intruders in the South China Sea has caused concern among Filipinos, especially fishermen.

On Friday, the Filipino fishermen’s advocacy group Pamalakaya petitioned the U.N. to nullify this law, investigate China’s actions in the South China Sea and to “demilitarize” the strategic and resource-rich waters. 

Besides China and the Philippines, other claimants to portions of the South China Sea are Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. Although Indonesia does not consider itself a party to the dispute, China has claims that overlap with Indonesia’s EEZ in the South China Sea.