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MANILA, Philippines – Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian has been summoned yet again, following a weekend of “aggression and provocations” against Philippine vessels in different parts in the West Philippine Sea.
On December 9 and December 10, Philippine vessels were subject to harassment by China Coast Guard ships as they embarked on missions to Bajo de Masinloc and Ayungin Shoal.
In a briefing, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson Teresita Daza said the department first used the “maritime communications mechanism” with China at noon on December 10, followed by the filing of diplomatic protests by the Philippine Embassy in Beijing. Huang is expected to be summoned by the DFA Monday afternoon, but Daza refused to disclose the exact details of his summons.
On Tuesday, DFA Undersecretary Ma. Theresa Lazaro verbally delivered the protest against the Chinese maneuvers that led to a collision, and against use of water cannons against Philippine vessels sending supplies to troops stationed in an ageing warship at the Ayungin Shoal.
“The actions of the Chinese vessels within the Philippine exclusive economic zone are illegal and violate the freedom of navigation,” the ministry said.
The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This would be the fourth time in 2023 for the DFA to publicly announce a summon of the Chinese ambassador. The first time was after China used lasers against the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), and then in August 2023 after China used water cannons the first time this year. The last time a summon of Huang was made public was in October when a military-contracted ship collided with a CCG vessel.
Ayungin Shoal is a feature located some 105 nautical miles west of Palawan, while Bajo de Masinloc (or Panatag Shoal) is located some 124 nautical miles west of Zambales. Both features are within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ), meaning it’s the Philippines that has both the right and responsibility to exploit and protect resources in that area, up to 220 nautical miles from the shore.
Asked to react to calls for the Philippines to declare Huang a persona non grata, Daza said it was something that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“When an Ambassador assumes [their new role], he is accepted by the accrediting host government. If you do something or say something that is unwelcome, you can be subject to what they call a persona non grata. In this case, it will be something that will have to be seriously considered [if and] whether the incidents or the series of incidents merit having him be a persona non grata,” explained Daza.
“But I would also like to add this: an Ambassador is supposed to building bridges, and not strain relations. We are calling… that he will try to do his best to actually enhance relations between the two countries just as we expect our ambassadors abroad to do the same,” she added.
Trouble in West Philippine Sea
China deployed over 44 vessels – 36 from the Chinese Maritime Militia, and 8 from the China Coast Guard – in the vicinity of Ayungin during the December 10 resupply mission. “This is the largest number of maritime forces that we have documented so far in the previous months,” said PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea Commodore Jay Tarriela in the same press briefing.
One resupply vessel sustained damage to its engine, while a PCG vessel also reportedly sustained damage to its mast. Only one of the two resupply ships, which had military chief General Romeo Brawner Jr. on board, made it to the BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II ship that serves as a military outpost in the shoal.
A day before the resupply mission, several Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessels were hit with China’s water cannons when it tried to bring supplies for fishermen trying to fish in Bajo de Masinloc.
While rising tensions in both Ayungin Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc are nothing new, it’s the first time this year that it’s happened one after another – and just as a civilian mission was supposed to travel to parts of the West Philippine Sea. The Christmas convoy eventually decided to abort its mission after four Chinese ships – including Chinese Coast Guard and navy ships – started shadowing them.
Daza said the weekend cases of harassment were the third and fourth instances this year of China using water cannons against the Philippines.
National Security Council spokesperson Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya said the weekend provocations were “a serious escalation on the part of the People’s Republic of China.”
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Colonel Medal Aguilar said the Philippines had already prepared “adjustments” in its strategy in the West Philippine Sea, pending approval of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
China claims practically all of the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, as its own – even if a 2016 Arbitral Tribunal said this claim was invalid. China’s claims overlap with several countries in the region, including the Philippines and Vietnam, to name a few. – Rappler.com