Philippines-China relations

View from Manila: Why isn’t China confirming the next South China Sea meeting with Philippines? 

Bea Cupin

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View from Manila: Why isn’t China confirming the next South China Sea meeting with Philippines? 

WATER CANNONS IN AYUNGIN. Two China Coast Guard ships train their water cannons onto the Unaizah May 4 (between the two Chinese ships), a wooden boat used to bring supplies to the BRP Sierra Madre. Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos was on board the Unaizah May during this mission.

Screenshot from PCG video

(1st UPDATE) In President Marcos' home province, Ilocos Norte, PH and US troops play out an invasion scenario and sink a China-made oil tanker for Balikatan 2024

LAOAG CITY – If China believes in talk and diplomacy to manage tensions, then why isn’t it committing to a date for a dialogue on the West Philippine Sea? 

Different government sources confirmed that a meeting of the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea (BCM-SCS) was being worked out for the first week of May 2024, just over three months after the two countries last convened in Shanghai, China

The problem is, China doesn’t seem to want to commit to a date. 

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), in a statement on Sunday, May 5, alluded to Beijing’s lack of commitment. 

“The Philippines has been earnest in seeking ways to reduce tensions with China through established diplomatic channels. If China is serious about properly managing the differences at sea, we urge China to favorably consider the standing Philippine invitation to convene the next meeting of the BCM-SCS as soon as possible,” said the DFA. 

Through the BCM, Philippine and Chinese envoys – headed by an undersecretary of the DFA – try to negotiate the two countries’ differences in the West Philippine Sea, or part of the South China Sea that includes the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. 

“China stays committed to properly managing maritime differences with relevant parties through dialogue and consultation. Both sides are in communication for this meeting,” the Chinese embassy in Manila told Rappler, responding to the DFA statement. 

The last meeting, held in January 2024, concluded with a promise to improve maritime communication between both its diplomats and coast guards. While the resupply mission to the rusting BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal in February went by smoothly, missions in March 2024 were not; the China Coast Guard used its water cannons on a navy-contracted ship, damaging it significantly. 

The DFA’s call was part of its statement answering claims made by the Chinese embassy about a supposed “new model’” on Ayungin Shoal made through the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)’s Palawan-based Western Command. A week before, the same claims were made through an anonymous diplomatic source (according to Inquirer) and a “ranking Chinese official” (according to the Manila Times).

Powerful and colorful statements from Philippine defense and security officials came over the weekend. National Security Adviser Eduardo Año called the embassy’s claims “absurd, ludicrous, and preposterous.” 

 “This charade must stop,” said Teodoro, adding he’d already “disallowed” contact between the defense department and the Chinese embassy following a 2023 courtesy call from Chinese Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian. 

The embassy claimed this meeting was when Teodoro was briefing on a Duterte-era “gentleman’s agreement” on Ayungin Shoal. “Readouts of the meeting were released respectively by the DND and the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines,” said the embassy. But neither release made a reference to a supposed briefing. 

Both Año and Teodoro denied that any agreements were made under the Marcos administration. Año said no agreement would ever be made – “premised or grounded on the illegal, debunked, and fabricated ‘9 or 10 dash line.’”

Balikatan in Laoag 

In the dry and dusty ​​La Paz Sand Dunes in Laoag, hundreds of Philippines and American troops will be carrying out the final exercises under Balikatan 2024. 

The morning of Monday, May 6, troops carried out a counter-landing exercise with assets from the two militaries taking turns preventing an invasion from sea. On Wednesday May 8, will be the bigger exercise – the Philippines and the US working together to sink a decommissioned oil tanker that just so happens to be made in China. 

It’s the penultimate activity on May 8 where the two militaries (and Australia, too) – the Philippines, especially, will be showcasing its newest toys. 

To sink the MT Lake Caliraya, the Philippines will be deploying the newly-acquired C-Star anti-ship missile about the BRP Jose Rizal, the Spike-ER surface-to-surface missile, as well as the newly-tested Spike Non-Line-of-Sight (NLOS) missile system. 

Laoag is a crucial city. It’s in Ilocos Norte, the home province of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. It is also a short plane ride away from Taiwan. 

Marcos himself had said it would be “hard to imagine” the Philippines avoiding involvement should conflict between China and Taiwan erupt. “We feel that we’re very much on the front line,” Marcos said in February 2023.

This year’s war games in the Philippines began in late April and took place in key areas – up north in Batanes, a province even closer to Taiwan than Ilocos Norte. Maritime and amphibious drills also took place in the shores of and waters off Palawan, a province that faces the West Philippine Sea. 

China, as expected, had called the drills at sea “muscle flexing, provocations and harassment.” 

The US sees Balikatan as proof that the decades-old Mutual Defense Treaty isn’t just a piece of paper. The year drills ensure that troops from both sides work well together at peace time, so it’s easier to coordinate and respond in times of crisis or war. –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.