This week a Chinese warship and a couple of maritime agency vessels conducted a patrol in the areas of the Spratly Islands that the Philippines claims, prompting an official rebuke from Manila.
According to Philippines officials, at least three Chinese ships and 10 fishing boats were spotted near the Ayungin Shoal, which is part of the Spratly Islands and about 200 kms off the coast of the Philippine island of Palawan.
Briefing reporters this week, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said, “We saw a frigate. We saw CMS (Chinese maritime surveillance) maritime ships. We have pictures and we have sent them to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). Based on [the photos] that I saw yesterday, there were two CMS and one frigate.”
Gazmin added that the presence of a Chinese military ship was “unusual.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs struck an even more defiant tone with a spokesperson from the department declaring, “They should not be there. They do not have the right to be there… no-one should doubt the resolve of the Filipino people to defend what is ours in that area.”
“Our Navy and our Coast Guard are mandated to enforce the laws of the (Philippine) republic,” Raul Hernandez, the spokesperson, added.
The Philippines stations a host of Marines on the Ayungin Shoal which is also called the Second Thomas Shoal. They operate from a WWII-era U.S. tank-landing vessel. Manila has said that its military was not deploying more ships to the area but that an unarmed, resupply ship is in route to replenish the deployed Marines.
The Philippines filed an official protest with the Chinese embassy in Manila, calling the ships deployment “provocative and illegal.” Beijing largely brushed aside the charges, restating its claims to sovereignty of the area.
Referring to the Spratlys by their Chinese name, a spokesperson from the China’s Foreign Ministry said: “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters…. Patrols by Chinese official ships in the waters are justified.”
The Foreign Ministry also called on the parties of the South China Sea dispute to, “fully and earnestly” implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and seize taking actions that could “amplify or complicate the issue,” according to a report in the state-affiliated Global Times.
Although China and the Philippines have long contested sovereignty of the reefs and shoals in the Spratlys, the timing of the patrols suggest they may have been motivated by the recent spat between the Philippines and Taiwan, which China considers an integral part of China.
Last week a Philippine Coast Guard vessel fired on a Taiwanese fishing vessel, killing one of the crew members. The incident led to a full-blown diplomatic crisis between the Philippines and Taiwan in which China has enthusiastically joined Taiwan in condemning the Philippines.
China and Taiwan have analogous claims of sovereignty over waters in the East and South China Seas and Beijing has often used this fact to try and strengthen its ties with Taipei. In the East China Sea this strategy dates back to the 1970s, according to the global private intelligence firm Stratfor.
However, Beijing recently suffered a setback in this strategy when Taiwan reasserted its autonomy in handling sovereignty disputes by signing a fishing agreement with Japan. When the spat between Taiwan and the Philippines first developed last week, some observers speculated that Beijing would seek to use it to revive its strategy of tacitly cooperating with Taiwan in sovereignty disputes.
It’s unclear if the two events are related at all, however. The shooting of the Taiwanese fisherman took place near the Philippines’ northern island of Batanes, while the Chinese patrols occurred much further to the south. In this sense, the Chinese ships were patrolling areas much closer to the Scarborough Shoal that Beijing seized following a prolonged standoff with Manila in the waters in early 2012.
Moreover, the dispute between Taiwan and the Philippines appeared to be winding down about the time that Manila went public with the Chinese patrols, when Taipei announced it was allowing Manila to send an investigation team to review the evidence of the shooting incident.
In any case, the recent flare-ups with Taiwan and China have clearly rattled the Philippines, which announced on Tuesday that it will spend US$1.8 billion to beef up its defenses in order to “resist bullies” as President Benigno Aquino put it.