PH, China trade blame for near-collision in WPS
The Philippines and China on Friday blamed each other for the near-collision of two of their coast guard ships near Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal a day after President Marcos held talks with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.
Manila said a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship with bow number 5201 used “dangerous maneuvers” to block the much smaller 44-meter BRP Malapascua of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), which was sailing toward Ayungin, where the derelict Philippine Navy ship BRP Sierra Madre serves as one of the country’s outposts in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
Teresita Daza, spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), on Friday said a report by the PCG was being studied and Manila would take “appropriate diplomatic action” if the CCG was found to have taken an “illegal action” in Philippine waters.
In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the PCG vessel was responsible for the near-collision.
“It was a premeditated and provocative action for the Philippine vessel to barge into the waters of Ren’ai Jiao (Ayungin Shoal) with journalists on board. The aim was to deliberately find fault and take the opportunity to hype up the incident,” Mao said during a regular press briefing on Friday.
She said that the Chinese coast guard ship “safeguarded China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime order” and took measures to avoid a collision.
Daza shot back, saying: “Routine patrols in our own waters can neither be premeditated nor provocative.”
“It is a legal right that we exercised and will continue to exercise,” she said. “We again call on China to respect the Philippines’ rights over the West Philippine Sea, as provided by Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), and refrain from actions that may cause an untoward incident.”
After his meeting with Qin a day before the Ayungin incident, Mr. Marcos said he had a “very useful and very, very productive” talk with China’s foreign minister and they were able to “iron things out.” The two countries have long-running disputes in the South China Sea and China has opposed the presence of US forces in Philippine military bases close to Taiwan.
The two foreign ministries had set up a hotline early this year to prevent an escalation of any incident in the South China Sea where Beijing had laid claim to nearly the entire waterway, including the West Philippine Sea, waters within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Daza said the Chinese side called the DFA at 5:56 on Sunday afternoon, following the near-collision, which happened around 10 a.m., according to the time stamps on pictures released by the PCG.
Daza said Manila informed the Chinese side that the PCG vessels were “on routine patrol and that we have every right to carry out such an activity.”
She did not directly respond when asked by reporters whether the hotline was used during the incident itself.
In a statement on Friday, Commodore Jay Tarriela, the PCG spokesperson on the West Philippine Sea, said that following the President’s directive, PCG commandant Adm. Artemio Abu deployed BRP Malapascua and BRP Malabrigo to patrol the West Philippine Sea and the Philippine EEZ from April 18 to April 24.
The two ships sailed in the waters off Escoda (Sabina) Shoal, Iroquois Reef, Tizzard Bank, Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, as well as Lawak (Nanshan) Island, Patag (Flat Island), Likas (West York) Island, Parola (Northeast) Cay, Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, and Ayungin in the Kalayaan Island Group, part of Palawan’s Kalayaan municipality.
The PCG report said Malapascua and Malabrigo were shadowed by Chinese navy and coast guard ships, and were ordered by the Chinese to leave the waters several times throughout their six-day patrol.
According to Tarriela, there were 17 groups of Chinese maritime militia (CMM) vessels totaling more than 100, at Julian Felipe.
The PCG patrol deployed coast guard personnel on rigid hull inflatable boats to order the CMM boats to leave, but they were ignored.
On April 21, a Chinese navy corvette with bow number 449 crossed paths with BRP Malapascua and BRP Malabrigo about 13 kilometers from Pag-asa. In a radio message, the Chinese ship challenged the presence of the PCG vessels and told them to leave, and that their failure to comply might “cause problems.”
“Despite this, the PCG vessels did not back down and responded by asserting their rights to carry out operations within the territorial sea of Pag-asa Island. They further asked the Chinese navy to leave the area immediately instead,” a PCG statement said.
Just 45 meters away
In the morning of April 23, two CCG ships with bow numbers 5201 and 4202 blocked the PCG vessels in the waters off Ayungin.
CCG 5201 carried out “dangerous maneuvers” near Malapascua from a “perilous distance” of only 45 meters, Tarriela said. This violated the 1972 Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, he said.
“This close proximity posed a significant threat to the safety and security of the Philippine vessel and its crew,” Tarriela said.
Meanwhile, CCG 4202 persistently followed Malabrigo from about 640 meters away.
“We would have collided on the bow had I not cut the engine and thrown it in reverse,” BRP Malapascua’s commander, Capt. Rodel Hernandez, told a group of journalists who were watching from BRP Malabrigo.
Hernandez said it was like the “David and Goliath” encounter in the Bible.
The incident was captured in pictures and videos taken by a crew from the government-run PTV4 television network and journalists working for foreign news agencies who were invited to join the patrol—part of the PCG’s new tact of “exposing” Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea.
“Despite this evidence of an unedited video, they claim that the PCG has an unusual behavior near Ayungin Shoal and that we are constructing artificial islands,” Tarriela said.
“I am sorry but the Philippines is not like China. We adhere to international law and we condemn illegal actions like what you did in other maritime features,” he said.
A case for UN
Cagayan Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said what happened was “a near armed conflict” not just a near-collision.
“This is China’s folly! It should stop its illegal intrusions in our West Philippine Sea!” he told the Inquirer in a text message.” “We should now bring these Chinese violations of international maritime law to the United Nations!”
House Deputy Minority Leader France Castro said the Philippines should lobby the Asian Parliamentary Assembly and the Inter-Parliamentary Union to condemn China.
“China is deceitful. While its diplomats are saying that more lines of communication are now available to avoid skirmishes and misunderstanding in the West Philippine Sea, their Coast Guard tried to ram our Coast Guard and are intent in denying us our own waters,” she said in a statement sent to the Inquirer.
Castro suggested putting international pressure on China and joint patrols with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Taiwan—the other countries with claims to parts of the South China Sea—as a “peaceful yet assertive ways to defend our territory, military agreements will just exacerbate the current situation.”
Marcos US trip
Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri on Friday urged Mr. Marcos to discuss the acquisition of more air defense systems, bigger patrol vessels, fighter jets and other military equipment, such as antiship missiles in his talks next week with US President Joe Biden.
“At a time when there is so much tension in the region, our nation must look towards our friends who share the values of freedom and democracy as well as respect for each and every nation’s sovereignty,” Zubiri said.
The President will fly to the United States on April 30 for a five-day official visit.
Asked what commitments Mr. Marcos would ask from Biden in the face of China’s encroachment in Philippine waters, Daza said the President would stress the need for peace and stability in the South China Sea.
“I cannot preempt the President, but I think the President will underscore what we want the waters to be. And we want the waters, the sea, particularly South China Sea and West Philippine Sea, to be a sea of peace, security and stability, and prosperity,” she said.
“So, we’re safe to assume that he will also count on the US to actually support Philippine efforts in terms of enhancing maritime cooperation, upholding international law and freedom of navigation and overflight, and promoting sustainable development of marine resources,” she added.
Daza said Mr. Marcos would also discuss the need for “great powers,” including the United States, to help maintain peace in the South China Sea. —WITH REPORTS FROM MARLON RAMOS AND JULIE M. AURELIO