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Australia, Japan join calls vs 'destabilizing actions' in South China Sea

Australia and Japan are the latest to express concern over “destabilizing actions” that could raise tensions in the highly volatile South China Sea, as a number of Chinese vessels continued to linger near Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea.

On Wednesday, March 24, Australia said it remained “concerned” about such moves in the international waterway, where countries should uphold the rule of law. 

“We remain concerned about destabilizing actions that could provoke escalation,” Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven Robinson said on Twitter. 

“Australia supports an #IndoPacific region which is secure open and inclusive. The South China Sea – a crucial international waterway – is governed by international rules and norms, particularly UNCLOS,” he added, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

Australia’s statement came just a day after both the United States and Japan spoke out on the issue, opposing any action that would drive up tension in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. 

“The South China Sea issues are directly related to peace & stability and a concern for all. Japan strongly opposes any action that heightens tensions. We support the enforcement of #RuleOfLaw in the sea & work with the int'l community to protect the free, open, and peaceful seas,” Japan's Ambassador to the Philippines Koshikawa Kazuhiko said on Twitter on Tuesday night, March 23. 

China hit back at Japan for chiming in on the issue and accused it of “acting as a vassal state” of the US.

“It is a pity that some Asian country, which has disputes with China in the East China Sea and is driven by the selfish aim to check China's revitalization, willingly stoops to acting as a strategic vassal of the US,” its embassy in Manila tweeted. 

Earlier on Tuesday, the US backed the Philippines as it voiced concern over the presence of over 220 ships believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia spotted near Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea. It supported calls of Philippine officials demanding China withdraw its vessels believed to be manned by maritime militia in the area. 

“The US stands with our ally, the Philippines, regarding concerns about the gathering of PRC maritime militia vessels near Whitsun Reef. We call on Beijing to stop using its maritime militia to intimidate and provoke others, which undermines peace and security,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said. 

Why it matters

The swarming of Julian Felipe Reef, a boomerang-shaped shallow coral reef, located northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs (Union Reefs), is similar to China's tactic of swarming of vessels near Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea. 

Julian Felipe Reef is about 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan, also putting it within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, where Filipinos enjoy sovereign rights over resources.

On Wednesday, retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio warned that the continued presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels near Julian Felipe Reef could be a “prelude" to China occupying another maritime feature in the West Philippine Sea. 

Carpio – one of the legal minds behind the 2016 Hague ruling the Philippines won against China – said he was “particularly worried” that Beijing was using the same strategy in Julian Felipe Reef as it did when occupying Mischief Reef in 1995. 

The Armed Forces of the Philippines earlier said that as of Tuesday, March 23, at least 183 Chinese vessels surrounded Julian Felipe Reef. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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