Calls to remove ships go unheeded . . .
China-Philippine diplomatic tensions continued to escalate this week as at least 40 Chinese vessels remained at the Whitsun Reef (or Juan Felipe reef), which lies within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. The Philippines vowed to file daily diplomatic protests against the Chinese vessels’ continued presence, demanding Beijing order their withdrawal. In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespersons explained that the boats are in historical Chinese fishing grounds, have been sheltering from rough seas, and have no intention of remaining around the reef permanently.
Bilateral relations enter stormy waters . . .
The 40 ships still within the Philippine EEZ were part of a larger group of more than 200 Chinese ships that entered Philippine maritime territory on March 21, re-igniting territorial tensions between Manila and Beijing. However, since April, most of the vessels have scattered around disputed maritime areas surrounding the Spratly Islands, also in the South China Sea. Philippine government officials, including the foreign affairs and defence secretaries, have labelled the incursion and remaining vessels an “invasion.” They have also denounced China’s “illegitimate” claims by leaning on the Philippines’ 2016 Hague international tribunal ruling declaring China’s alleged historic claims over much of the South China Sea as invalid.
An unwilling captain . . .
The strong censure from Philippine officials around this most recent maritime incident stems from suspicions China seeks to take over Whitsun Reef, similar to events in 1995 and 2012 when other ocean features were appropriated by Beijing and turned into military outposts. This time out, President Rodrigo Duterte has issued a restrained statement reaffirming his commitment to “peacefully resolving” the issue, adding that disputes in the South China Sea would not impede “friendly relations” with China. Since his election in 2016, Duterte has sought closer ties with China, considering Beijing an essential investment and trade partner. As the Philippines struggles with the pandemic, China has also been a ready source of vaccines, with Manila purchasing nearly 25 million Sinovac doses. While the pandemic wreaks economic and public health havoc, it is unlikely Duterte will risk rocking the boat over the South China Sea.