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ISSN 2816-1971

  • Andrea Chloe Wong

Tensions at Sea: China Acts, the Philippines Reacts

Chinese provocative actions in the South China Sea is pushing the Philippines to stand up to China and call on countries to stand with it.

A China Coast Guard vessel shooting a water cannon at a Philippine resupply boat
Image Credit: Philippine Coast Guard

In the past month, tensions in the Sino-Filipino relation have risen sharply. As if firing a water cannon towards Philippine vessels was not provocative enough, China further heightened tensions by publishing its 10-dash line map that denoted a maritime territory which encroached on the Philippines' maritime boundaries.

On August 5, the China Coast Guard (CCG) fired a water cannon towards Philippine boats carrying food, water, and fuel for Filipino military personnel stationed at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the Spratly islands. The boats were undertaking a routine troop rotation and regular resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusty World War II-era ship that has been grounded at the Ayungin Shoal since 1999 to serve as the Philippines’ critical outpost and an important vestige of its sovereignty in the area.

This was not the first time that the CCG has blocked Philippine vessels during their resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal. The PCG stated that in July, they were “constantly followed, harassed, and obstructed by the significantly larger Chinese coast guard vessels”. Yet the water cannon incident is viewed as “excessive and offensive”. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) called on China to “act with prudence and be responsible in their actions to prevent miscalculations and accidents that will endanger peoples’ lives”.

China justified its act by accusing the Philippines of illegally intruding and permanently occupying the area. The Chinese Embassy in Manila asserted that the Philippines “tried to deliver the construction materials for overhauling and reinforcing the grounded military vessel”. The CCG intercepted Philippine vessels and gave repeated verbal warnings; after which “water cannons were used to avoid direct collision,” arguing that the “onsite operation was professional, restrained, and beyond reproach”. China subsequently demanded that the Philippines remove the BRP Sierra Madre from the Ayungin Shoal.

The Philippines tried to reach out to China but it was “unreachable” while the incident was occurring. This despite Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s agreement in January to establish a hotline for direct communication to prevent tensions and mishaps in the South China Sea. China’s refusal to “pick up the phone” when it mattered the most reflects its ploy to sow fear and uncertainties. According to Filipino maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal, “Hotlines with (China) are not for communication, it’s to make the other side more uncertain about escalation… As far as (China) is concerned, the one who calls is the one who’s weak. Not answering shows who’s strong”.

China’s hostile act has prompted the Philippines to seek military support from the U.S. and other countries. This is made convenient as the Philippines had already earlier granted the U.S. access to military sites under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), some of which are located near the Spratly islands. The Philippines also plans to conduct joint maritime patrols with Japan and Australia, which concluded the first bilateral amphibious exercise with the AFP last August. The goal is to challenge China’s gray zone tactics in the South China Sea. As U.S Navy Vice Admiral Karl Thomas puts it, “When they're taking a little bit more and more and pushing you, you've got to push back, you have to sail and operate".

Despite protests and condemnation which had yet to subside, China again heightened tensions when it announced on August 28 the publication of its 10-dash line map. This 2023 version featured expanded claims in the South China Sea that encompasses Taiwan, the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, Vietnam and Malaysia’ maritime areas, and portions of India’s territories.

The Philippines rejects China’s “latest attempt to legitimize its purported sovereignty and jurisdiction over Philippine features and maritime zones that has no basis under international law”. The 2016 Arbitral Award has already invalidated China’s nine-dash line that encroach on the Philippines’ maritime territories, which the Chinese government has strongly rejected. China’s latest map therefore makes a mockery of Philippine sovereignty—not once but twice.

The 2023 standard map also indicates the “arbitrariness” of Chinese territorial claims because of its modifications with no legal basis. It reflects ambiguity on China’s conceptualisation of the seas that covers its sovereign territory and domestic jurisdiction. From nine to 10 dash line, China has widened control over maritime areas and land features, contributing to a form of “maritime territorialisation” in which sovereignty is represented and reinforced.

China’s provocative actions belie its commitment to international norms and the rule of law. And it contributed to the global disbelief of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s assertion in 2020 that “China is not seeking to become a maritime empire” and “treats its neighbouring nations on an equal basis and exercises the greatest restraint”. Its actions also reinforce global fears of its future power projections; China seems increasingly emboldened to flex its military muscle and economic leverage to advance its national interests at the expense of others. The growing expectation is that China will not compromise on its expansive territorial claims necessary to facilitate a viable diplomatic resolution.

At the rate of China’s belligerent activities at sea, the Philippines is pushed to its limits, almost to the brink of exhaustion. Even as Marcos vows that the Philippines "will not lose an inch of its territory,” it will be difficult to stand up to China’s might. It is therefore advocating for other regional stakeholders to go beyond statements of solidarity (with the Philippines) and condemnation (against China), and to increase joint maritime activities that will prevent the Chinese government from completely changing the status quo at sea in its favour.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.


Andrea Chloe Wong has a PhD in Political Science at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. She formerly served as a Senior Foreign Affairs Research Specialist at the Foreign Service Institute of the Department of Foreign Affairs Philippines.



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