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MANILA, Philippines – Commodore Jay Tarriela, spokesperson of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on the West Philippine Sea, said on Friday, January 19, that he had “high hopes with moderate expectations,” after the Philippines and China promised to improve its “maritime communication mechanism” not just between diplomats but between its respective coast guards.
Tarriela was responding to Rappler’s request for comment on one of the agreements made during the 8th Philippines-China Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea in Shanghai, China on January 17.
In a statement released on January 18, the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the two countries “agreed that continuous dialogue is important to keep peace and stability at sea.”
“Both sides presented their respective positions on the Ayungin Shoal and assured each other of their mutual commitment to avoid escalation of tensions. The Philippines and China agreed to improve maritime communication mechanism in the South China Sea. This includes communications between foreign ministries and coast guards of the two countries,” read the DFA statement.
The mention of Ayungin Shoal or Second Thomas Shoal is important.
The low-tide elevation, located just over 100 nautical miles off the coast of Palawan, is a flashpoint for tensions between the two countries in the West Philippine Sea, or part of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Even if it’s in an area where the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights, China claims it as its territory. Beijing has insisted on this stand, and has not recognized a 2016 Arbitral Award that deemed its claim over most of the South China Sea as invalid.
Within Ayungin stands the BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II vessel that serves as the Philippines’ outpost in the area. Resupply and troop rotation missions to the Sierra Madre, in the latter half of 2023 had become treacherous, with China Coast Guard (CCG) and Chinese Maritime Militia ships routinely harassing the PCG, as well as small boats that the Philippine Navy contracts to bring supplies and troops.
During the December 2023 resupply, Navy-contracted vessels were hit by CCG water cannons, including a ship with the Philippines’ military chief on board. Another supply ship sustained damage and was unable to complete its mission.
In the months before that, the PCG documented collisions, near-collisions, “aggressive maneuvres,” the use of lasers, and constant shadowing by the CCG.
“I hope China will now know the meaning of commitment and sincerity, that whatever you promised and agreed upon on the conversation table should also be implemented on the ground,” said Tarriela in a post on X, formerly Twitter.
“On our part, we will never hesitate to continue exposing their aggression and provocative actions that heighten the tension in the West Philippine Sea if ever there will still be. Our continuous assertive transparency will prove to the world whether China truly honors their words or it remained disconnected with their actions,” he added.
“Assertive transparency” refers to the PCG’s efforts to always publicize China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippine government has been quick and consistent in posting photos and video clips showing how Chinese vessels harass Philippine missions to Ayungin.
The PCG has also routinely embedded media – journalists working for state-owned outlets and private Philippine media companies, as well as Filipino journalists who work for foreign media entities – who also document and file first-hand reports on China’s harassment. – Rappler.com