Really, it’s enough to tempt even the patient observer to ditch the diplomatic niceties.
China, through its Ambassador to Manila Ma Keqing, has raised concerns over “the Philippines coming up with structures, additional structures, on Ayungin Shoal” in the Spratly Islands, according to Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin. In a report, Gazmin further quoted Ma as saying that China is continuously monitoring Philippine troops in the area or whether new structures are being built.
Ayungin Shoal, located 105.77 nautical miles from Palawan and known internationally as Second Thomas Shoal, is claimed by the Philippines as part of its territory and is well within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. But China insists on a breathtakingly expansive claim: that it owns nearly all of the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), even waters far away from its main landmass and approaching the coasts of Southeast Asian countries, by virtue of historical sovereignty. World opinion and international law have not backed China on its claims, but this has not deterred the increasingly aggressive giant nation from flexing muscle in the region.
It was China that first violated a 1995 agreement it signed with Asean nations to halt construction of any kind in the disputed islands and to inform the other signatories of military movement in the area. China used the excuse of a storm to send naval vessels to Panganiban Reef to supposedly repair Chinese “fishing shelters” there damaged by the typhoon. The structures were in fact expanded and fortified, solidifying China’s hold on the area.
Another tension-easing agreement among the claimant-countries was signed in November 2002, called the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and meant “to resolve … territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.”
Increasingly, however, force—or the projection of it—has been China’s gambit in trying to reaffirm its claims. In the latest case, Chinese fishing boats were sighted near Ayungin, within Philippine waters. More alarmingly, the boats were accompanied by a Chinese warship that, in the words of the ensuing Philippine diplomatic protest, was “illegally and provocatively” circling the area.
“It’s a fairly strong signal that, increasingly, China is going to provide naval as well as civilian assets to protect its fishing fleets,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
The Chinese may also see Ayungin as an easy target because the Philippines’ presence on it consists of a handful of Marines stationed aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, a former US tank-landing vessel that was deliberately grounded on the shoal to serve as a base. Unlike on Kalayaan
Island where Philippine troops have carved out a land-based station, the soldiers on Ayungin live lonely lives on the 100-meter amphibious vessel that dates back to 1944. Resupplies are said to take between 36 and 40 hours to arrive, depending on the weather.
That pitiful outpost, in effect, is the Philippines’ last line of defense against China’s moves on the islets and the waters. But China not only has sent its fishing vessels into the area backed by a warship. When confronted about it, it attempts to turn the tables by raising concerns with the Philippine defense chief about the supposed building of additional structures in the area. This is on top of the rote invocation of its supposed ownership of the entire area, hence “patrols by Chinese official ships in the waters are justified,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei in Beijing.
China’s aggression must be met with concerted protest action by the Philippines and its Asean allies—and soon. If its latest muscle-flexing is not met with serious protests, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea will be seen as lame and toothless, unable to elicit even the most basic and minimum good behavior from its signatory-countries—but especially from the giant up north that risks damaging the global standing it has painstakingly built by throwing its weight around.