Philippines, allies denounce CCP’s maritime militia encroachment
A growing chorus of Indo-Pacific partners and like-minded nations are joining the Philippines in condemning a “swarming and threatening” incursion by hundreds of Chinese vessels into its sovereign territory in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippine government filed a diplomatic protest with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in late March 2021 and called for the flotilla’s immediate withdrawal from Whitsun Reef, also known as Julian Felipe Reef, The Manila Timesnewspaper reported. The Philippine military deployed extra Navy ships to conduct “sovereignty patrols” in the area and fighter aircraft are monitoring the roughly 200 Chinese vessels, pictured, which officials describe as a maritime militia.
“By the increased naval presence in the area, we seek to reassure our people of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ strong and unwavering commitment to protect and defend them from harassment and ensure that they can enjoy their rights over the country’s rich fishing ground,” military spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said in a statement, according to Reuters.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte also raised the issue with the Chinese ambassador to his nation, citing a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal that rejected the PRC’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, the eastern portions of which encompass the West Philippine Sea.
“The president said we are really concerned. Any country will be concerned with that number of ships,” Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, told reporters. “The president reiterated what he told the U.N. [United Nations]: that we will stand by and protect our territory.”
Beijing claims the vessels are fishing boats sheltering from bad weather in a lagoon and that they moored in Chinese waters. However, the incursion follows a now-familiar pattern of provocative actions by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, a global trade route. The CCP has ignored the tribunal ruling, instead seeking to grab territory by building military installations on dredged land. Analysts say the CCP’s maritime militia masquerades as a fishing fleet to encroach into other nations’ sovereign waters and exclusive economic zones.
In addition to the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have territorial claims in the South China Sea. Indo-Pacific nations including the United States are conducting regular military exercises and freedom of navigation operations to ensure that the rule of law is maintained in the vital waterway.
Satellite images indicate Chinese vessels have been congregating at the boomerang-shaped reef since late 2020, according to media reports. “This deployment at Whitsun Reef is not new, but the numbers are way up,” Gregory B. Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Associated Press.
Vietnam said the incursion also infringed on its territory, Reuters reported. The reef, which Vietnam calls Da Ba Dau, lies at the eastern limit of the Vietnamese-claimed Spratly Islands. A Vietnam Coast Guard vessel was moored near the area in late March.
“Vietnam requests that China stop this violation and respect Vietnam’s sovereignty,” Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said.
The Japanese Embassy in the Philippines said South China Sea issues are “directly related to peace and stability and a concern for all.”
“Japan strongly opposes any action that heightens tensions,” the embassy said in a Twitter post March 23. “We support the enforcement of #RuleOfLaw in the sea and work with the international community to protect the free, open and peaceful seas.”
Those concerns were echoed by Canada, New Zealand and the U.S., among other nations.
“The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC’s maritime militia amassing at Whitsun Reef,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted March 28. “We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order.”
The European Union’s ambassador to the Philippines reiterated that nations that unilaterally weaken maritime security and international law pose “a serious threat to the peaceful development of the region.” The “EU stands by rules-based order,” Luc Veron tweeted.
IMAGE CREDIT: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS