The Philippines plans to boost multilateral activities in the South China Sea in order to safeguard its sovereignty against a string of Chinese incursions, the country’s defense minister said yesterday.
Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro made the comment during a wide-ranging interview that was televised on the state-run PTV network yesterday, less than a week after an incident in which Chinese vessels blocked and collided with two Philippine vessels in contested waters.
In the interview, Teodoro said that dangerous incident “could result in more willing nations to join our fight,” according to a report by Reuters, though he did not elaborate on what that would entail.
The October 22 incident, which Teodoro denounced shortly afterward as an act of “brute force” and a “blatant violation of international law,” took place close to Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged shoal lying well within Manila’s 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. The Chinese action was the latest in a string of attempts to prevent the Philippines from resupplying Philippine personnel stationed aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-era ship that was purposefully grounded on the shoal in 1999.
This year, China has made a number of increasingly forceful attempts to block resupply missions at Second Thomas Shoal, with the apparent aim of dislodging the Philippines from there. The resulting tensions threaten to derail China-Philippines relations and even to spark a conflict.
This week, the two sides traded accusations of responsibility for the collisions. The Chinese government has accused the Philippines vessels of “trespassing” into Chinese territory, and called on Manila to stop “causing trouble and provocation” at sea.
Teodoro said on Monday that China’s coastguard had “harassed and intentionally hit” the two Philippine vessels, describing the action as “a serious escalation of the illegal activities conducted by the Chinese government in the West Philippine Sea in complete disregard of any norm or convention of international law.”
The Chinese action was subsequently condemned by a number of close Philippine partners, including the United States, which repeated this week that it is treaty-bound to defend the Philippines in case of an armed attack in the South China Sea.
Also in yesterday’s interview, Teodoro criticized the Chinese government for depicting the Philippines as a puppet of the U.S., and claiming that Manila’s growing outspokenness on South China Sea issues was part of an American plot to contain China.
“What China is saying, the favorite Chinese narratives is that, this is all a play of the United States and that we are just marionettes or puppets of the Americans who follow their playbook,” Teodoro said.
According to the defense chief, China has assumed that “we have no ability to think for ourselves and to stand up for our own rights.” He added, “This is insulting to Filipinos.”
Indeed, there is no small amount of irony in the fact that the current Chinese campaign of escalation in the South China Sea has already helped drive a swift strengthening of its security alliance with the United States. This has included the expansion of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which has granted the U.S. military access to four additional Philippine military facilities, and talks of joint patrols in the South China Sea with the U.S., Japan, and potentially other Philippine partners. (One would assume that Teodoro’s calls for more multilateral cooperation would extend and build on these initiatives.)
As long as China keeps up the pressure, it will only incentivize the Philippines to lean more closely on its more powerful partners for support.