Philippines Sends Navy On ‘Sovereignty Patrols’ To South China Sea Amid Fears Whitsun Reef Is ‘Scarborough Shoal 2.0’

ASSOCIATED PRESS & SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST - Raissa Robles

The Philippine military has ordered more navy ships to be deployed for “sovereignty patrols” in the South China Sea, where a Chinese flotilla has surrounded a disputed reef and ignored Manila’s demand to leave the area.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has asked about 200 Chinese vessels he described as militia boats to immediately leave Whitsun Reef, a shallow coral region about 175 nautical miles (324km) west of Bataraza town in the western Philippine province of Palawan. China ignored the call, insisting it owns the offshore territory and that the vessels were sheltering from rough seas.

Military chief General Cirilito Sobejana ordered the deployment of additional navy ships to strengthen the country’s “maritime sovereignty patrols” in the disputed waters, the military said on Thursday.

It did not say how close the Philippine navy ships would manoeuvre from the Chinese vessels, whose presence Lorenzana has called an “incursion” and “provocative action of militarising the area”.

“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 Major General Edgard Arevalo said.

The United States said on Tuesday it was backing the Philippines in the new feud with Beijing and accused China of using “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region”.

The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest but China insisted it owns the reef, which it calls Niué Jiao, and said the Chinese vessels converged in the area to avoid rough waters. The US, however, said “Chinese boats have been mooring in this area for many months in ever increasing numbers, regardless of the weather.”

Beijing has denied the vessels were maritime militias. “Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation,” the Chinese Embassy said Monday.

The Philippine government says the reef is well within the country’s internationally recognised exclusive economic zone over which it “enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources.”

Philippine military officials discussed the impasse with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on Wednesday and conveyed Lorenzana’s demand for the Chinese vessels to leave the reef, which Manila calls Julian Felipe, Arevalo said.

President Rodrigo Duterte asserted Manila’s position in a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said, but reported no resolution.

Greg Poling of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a US-based think tank closely monitoring the territorial conflicts, said more Chinese fishing and militia vessels had recently frequented Whitsun Reef at the northeastern edge of Union Banks, an atoll where China maintains two bases. Vietnam, which also claims the area, has four bases.

“This deployment at Whitsun Reef is not new, but the numbers are way up,” Poling said.

Meanwhile, Vietnam has also said the Chinese vessels at the reef, which Hanoi calls Da Ba Dau, had infringed on its sovereignty.

“Vietnam requests that China stop this violation and respect Vietnam’s sovereignty,” Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said.

Hang said a Vietnamese coastguard vessel moored near the area was “exercising its duties” as regulated by international law, Reuters reported.

Mutual Defence Treaty

The developments at Whitsun Reef came as Philippine maritime experts said Manila should be able to ask Washington for help through their Mutual Defence Treaty in the event of a Chinese attack on its coastguard vessels.

The point was raised during a discussion by the Pacific Forum, a foreign policy think tank in Hawaii, titled “Advancing Maritime Security Through Coastguard Cooperation in Southeast Asia”.

Jay Tarriela, a lieutenant commander in the Philippine coastguard, said that since the country’s coastguard vessels were increasingly being used “in patrolling contested waters [and] carrying out maritime law enforcement in the South China Sea” now was the time to clarify whether they were covered by the defence treaty the two countries agreed in 1951.

Under the treaty, “an armed attack on either of the parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific”.

However, Tarriela says there has long been an ambiguity over whether the treaty covers coastguard vessels.

Tarriela urged the US to address this ambiguity and recognise coastguard vessels as “public vessels” under the treaty.

He pointed to the mass of ships near Whitsun Reef, saying he feared this could be “Scarborough Shoal 2.0” – a disputed territory that China seized control of in 2012.

“It’s about time both [governments] were on the same page in understanding what is the best policy option in responding to what is happening,” Tarriela said.

Vice-Admiral Linda L. Fagan, the Pacific Area Commander of the US Coastguard, did not directly answer Tarriela during the forum.

However, she said the countries had “the venue to open all these discussions”.

“Is there a larger diplomatic conversation that needs to go on around our commitments and understanding of one of our long-standing treaties? All of these venues are in place between these two countries and I’m very encouraged by that,” she said, adding “we actively seek these opportunities”.

In a separate interview, maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said coastguard vessels did fall under the treaty as they were “public vessels” and there was therefore no need for further clarification.

Tarriela and Fagan agreed that the use of force was part of maritime law enforcement for both coastguards. However, they found it problematic that a new Chinese law authorised its coastguard to use force within the nine-dash line that Beijing uses to mark its territorial claims.

“We also have to consider the fact that the nine-dash line of the Chinese has already been decided by the International Tribunal as illegal,” said Tarriela, referring to a 2012 court ruling that China has refused to acknowledge.