Arguing with cannons
On Jan. 27, in bad weather, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel with Bow No. 3063 bore down on two Filipino fishing boats in Bajo de Masinloc, sounded its horn continuously, then unloaded its water cannons on both boats “for several minutes.” The facts, as well as the quote, are from the official statement the Department of Foreign Affairs issued almost a month after the incident, on Feb. 25. That same day, the DFA summoned the chargé d’affaires of the Chinese embassy in Manila to explain the incident.
In Beijing, however, the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry was unrelenting.
“I would like to re-emphasise that China has indisputable sovereignty over relevant waters and China’s maritime surveillance fleet are carrying out routine patrols in relevant waters,” Hua Chunying said, when the incident first hit the headlines. The following day, after the Philippines’ diplomatic protest, she said: “China does not accept so-called representations or protests from the Philippines.”
In the exact same way that the lack of democracy in China is reflected in that curious overemphasis in the country’s official name, a “people’s republic,” China’s lack of a legitimate claim to almost the entire South China Sea is reflected in the spokesperson’s choice of emphasis: “indisputable sovereignty.” But Beijing’s expansive territorial and maritime claims are in fact being disputed, not only by the Philippines but also by other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as well as by China’s powerful neighbors Japan and South Korea.
The DFA’s Raul Hernandez said the water cannon incident came in the wake of at least nine other instances of “harassment” of Filipino fishermen, “committed by Chinese civilian maritime law enforcement agency (CMLEA) vessels last year, where even during inclement weather conditions Philippine fishing vessels were driven away from the area.” But the use of water cannons seems to be new, and represents a hardening of Beijing’s attitude toward Manila’s continuing resistance both to the expansive Chinese claims and to China’s preferred bilateral approach.
This is a worrying escalation in the methods Beijing has seen fit to employ, to force the issue in Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal. It is possible for Philippine Navy vessels to come to the aid of stricken fishing boats, but the Philippines does not have the capability to render this service for the long term. Besides, militarization of the problem will only play to Beijing’s hand.
What is even more worrying, however, is the change in tone of the rhetoric of China’s diplomats: It has become decidedly Orwellian. “We demand that the relevant country earnestly respect China’s sovereignty, and not provoke any new incidents,” the ministry spokesperson said.
In fact, the latest incident was provoked by the Chinese—and during a time when the fishing boats were seeking shelter.
But this approach to turning words on their heads, and describing Philippine and international response to China’s provocative acts (imposing air defense identification zones unilaterally, declaring new fishing rules in all of the South China Sea) as irresponsible, suggests that the Chinese foreign ministry has lost its policy struggle with the People’s Liberation Army. Today, we can expect hard-line statements not only from military officials but from Chinese diplomats, too.
It was only less than two years ago that the Chinese foreign ministry entered into an agreement with the Philippines for a simultaneous withdrawal of vessels from the same area, a deal brokered with international help. But the PLA’s opposition to the deal scuppered it, and the end result was trickery on the high seas: The Philippines withdrew, but China stayed put.
The water cannon incident seems designed to test Philippine and international reaction; it is significant that the water cannons were deployed when there were a total of 14 Filipino fishing boats present in the area. In other words, it wasn’t meant to be a secret.
But it is no secret, too, that Bajo de Masinloc has been, as the DFA statement phrased it, “an integral part of the Philippines,” where “Philippine fishing vessels have been routinely, continuously, and peacefully and sustainably fishing” for a long time. Against this fact China can only argue with water cannons.
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