West Philippine Sea

China blockade of PH ships in West Philippine Sea fuels int’l concern

Sofia Tomacruz
China blockade of PH ships in West Philippine Sea fuels int’l concern

BLOCKED. Chinese coast guard ships blocked and fired water cannon on Philippine ships en route to Ayungin Shoal on November 16, 2021.

Rappler.com

(1st UPDATE) The United States, Japan, European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France, Germany, and New Zealand call out the Chinese Coast Guard’s 'destabilizing' actions in the West Philippine Sea

China’s recent move to block and use water cannons against Philippine boats on a resupply mission to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea has renewed international concern over Beijing’s “destabilizing” actions in the volatile waterway. 

In a series of separate statements issued days after the Philippines made the incident public, the United States, Japan, European Union (EU), United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France, and Germany called out the Chinese Coast Guard’s actions in the West Philippine Sea. 

These states urged countries to comply with international law, as well as the landmark Hague ruling that the Philippines won against China in 2016, and to refrain from taking action that could threaten stability in the region. 

On November 19, the US said it “strongly believes” that actions China had taken asserting its “expansive and unlawful claims” undermined peace and security in the area. It likewise told Beijing to refrain from interfering with Philippine activities in the Philippine exclusive economic zone, as it reiterated Washington’s commitment to Manila under the two countries’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. 

“The United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order and reaffirms that an armed attack on Philippine public vessels in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S. Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said. 

The Philippines had earlier condemned the actions of three Chinese Coast Guard vessels which it said blocked and fired water cannons on resupply boats headed towards Ayungin Shoal last November 16. The ships were transporting food to the shoal where the Philippine Navy ship BRP Sierra Madre is aground as a permanent outpost.

Ayungin Shoal is just 105 nautical miles (195 km) off Palawan and within the country’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Back in 2019, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said it monitored the presence of a Chinese Coast Guard vessel near the vicinity of Ayungin Shoal. 

What countries are saying

Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven Robinson said Australia continued to work with and support the Philippines as it expressed concern with “destabilizing incidents” in the South China Sea. 

“Australia has consistently expressed support for UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea], the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Award, and an open and inclusive region,” Robinson said. 

Japanese Ambassador Kazuhiko Koshikawa said Tokyo “strongly opposes” unilateral attempt to change the current situation in the East and South China Seas and called on countries to comply with the 2016 arbitral award. 

Canada likewise said it stood by UNCLOS and the 2016 Hague ruling, saying China’s recent “provocative actions” were “inconsistent” with obligations of all countries under international law. 

Canadian Ambassador Peter MacArthur added actions taken against the Philippines also “risk escalation of tensions, to detriment of peace, security and prosperity.”

In a joint statement, French Ambassador Michèle Boccoz and German Ambassador Anke Reiffenstuel expressed the “serious concern” of France and Germany, saying it firmly supported dialogue between parties done on the basis of international law. 

UK Minister of State for Asia Amanda Milling also expressed concern and urged “against actions that hinder the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

On Monday, November 22, the EU echoed similar sentiments as it expressed its “strong opposition” to the recent incident, which it noted had followed “other unilateral actions by vessels of the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea over the past months.” 

In an official statement, the EU urged countries to resolve disputes in accordance with UNCLOS. It likewise recalled the arbitral award which ruled that Ayungin Shoal was within the Philippines’ EEZ and continental shelf. 

New Zealand Ambassador Peter Kell added the country’s concern to latest developments in the South China Sea. He called on countries to respect UNCLOS and comply with the 2016 Hague ruling.

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Asked to comment on the incident, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters on November 18 that the Chinese Coast Guard took actions after Philippine boats “trespassed” waters.

Second attempt

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier said that he directed the military to embark on a resupply mission again this week, saying China “will not interfere” this time.

Lorenzana said he and Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian had been talking “since the evening of the 16th while the incident was happening until…20 November.”

On Monday, November 22, Lorenzana said the Philippine ships had resumed their operations.

“Yes, they left Palawan for Ayungin this morning and will arrive tomorrow morning at the [BRP] Sierra Madre,” Lorenzana told Rappler.

Lorenzana added the Chinese officials have yet to give their latest statement on the incident: “I have not received any.”

Long criticized for his soft approach on China, President Rodrigo Duterte issued a statement of condemnation at a summit between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China. The Philippine leader, in prepared remarks, said the government “abhorred” the incident. – with reports from Jairo Bolledo and Reuters/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.