South China Sea
Activists display anti-China placards and flags during a protest at a park in Manila on June 18, 2019, after a Chinese vessel last week collided with a Philippine fishing boat which sank in the disputed South China Sea and sailed away sparking outrage. The sinking of the Filipino fishing boat by the Chinese vessel in the disputed South China Sea was "just a collision", the Philippine's President Rodrigo Duterte said on June 17 as he moved to soothe anger over the crash.
War is not the answer: How other claimants handled maritime incidents
( - June 20, 2019 - 8:53pm

MANILA, Philippines — The allision between a Filipino fishing boat and a Chinese vessel near the Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea has sparked public outrage and has prompted critics to call for President Rodrigo Duterte to take a tougher stance on the incident.

When Duterte made his first public comments about the June 9 incident, the usually outspoken leader downplayed the sinking and reiterated that his country was not ready to go to war against China. 

"That is just a collision of boats. Do not make it worse," the president said, saying what happened was just a "little maritime incident." He warned that the Philippines cannot afford to go to war with China, an option that none of the critics on the government's policy in the West Philippine Sea had raised.

READ: Manila, Beijing favor joint probe into Recto Bank allision

Duterte has largely set aside the Philippines' row with Beijing over the key waterway to court trade and investments, but he has occasionally criticized China's actions there. 

Countering the president's pronouncements, critics say the Philippines' options are not limited to waging a war to resolve the sea row. Under the 1987 Constitution, the country "renounces war as an instrument of national policy" and "adopts the generally accepted principles of international law." 

According to US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, maritime disputes in the South China Sea present an array of potential flashpoints between countries with overlapping claims. 

“In recent years, many of these countries have mobilized government vessels traditionally used for maritime law enforcement to reinforce their territorial claims,” CSIS also said.

"Key among these states is China, which has actively employed its coast guard and other maritime law enforcement agencies to project power and assert sovereignty throughout the South China Sea," it added.

Here’s how claimant nations have handled some maritime incidents in the South China Sea in recent years.

The events were tracked by CSIS’s "ChinaPower" project.

FROM CSIS: Are maritime law enforcement forces destabilizing Asia?

China and Vietnam (April 20, 2018)

Two Chinese coast guard vessels chased a pair of Vietnamese fishing boats near Lincoln Reef in the Paracel Islands. The Chinese rammed and sank one of the Vietnamese trawlers.

How Vietnam responded: Vietnam’s Quang Ngai Province Fishery Association sent official letters to Vietnam’s Fishery Association and Quang Ngai People’s Committee to protest the incident.

Indonesia and Vietnam (February 24, 2019)

Four Vietnamese fishing vessels were operating in waters north of the Natuna Islands when they were confronted by Indonesian naval vessel KRI Bung Tomo (TOM) 357. Vietnamese maritime law enforcement vessels later arrived to obstruct the capture of the fishing boats.

How Indonesia responded: The Indonesian fisheries minister filed an official protest with Vietnam over the incident and announced that it would increase patrols in the South China Sea.

China and Taiwan (May 6, 2017)

The Taiwanese coast guard fired rubber bullets at the crew of a Chinese fishing boat after they ignored orders to stop to be inspected.

How China responded: China responded through the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, with a spokesperson demanding the release of the detained fishermen and their boats. China further demanded that Taiwan "stop the practice of detaining mainland fishing boats for no reason."

How Taiwan responded: The Coast Guard Administration stated that its enforcement action was not for “no good reason” and repeated its requests to China for it to rein in its fishermen. The Mainland Affairs Council elaborated that Chinese fishing boats have “violated Taiwan's law and repeatedly engaged in illegal fishing.”

Taiwan and Vietnam (January 6, 2016)

The Taiwanese coast guard rammed and fired water cannons at Vietnamese fishing vessels near Sand Cay in the disputed Spratly Islands.

How Vietnam responded: The Vietnamese Fisheries Union protested the incident.

China and Indonesia (March 19, 2016)

The Chinese coast guard forcibly recovered a fishing boat that had been confiscated by Indonesia near the Natuna Islands.

How China responded: China denied that any Chinese vessels entered Indonesian waters, or that its ships were involved in a confrontation. China claimed that the fishing vessel was operating in “traditional fishing grounds.”

How Indonesia responded: Indonesia’s Maritime Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador to explain the incident.

Limited options for Philippines?

After the Recto Bank incident, Manila filed a diplomatic protest as Beijing as Duterte allies and critics alike blasted how the Chinese boat left the fishermen in the open sea. 

According to an April 2017 report titled "South China Sea Lawfare: Post-Arbitration Policy Options and Future Prospects,” the Philippines has legal, diplomatic and security policy options following the July 2016 ruling of a United Nations-backed tribunal that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claims over the contested sea.

Historically, major powers have often resisted the rulings of international tribunals, only to eventually find a politically acceptable means to accommodate them. 

Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said that the use of armed force in settling the disputes is out of the question.

After the arbitral ruling was issued, the Philippines has legal policy options related to the entrenchment of legal positions on entitlements, rights and delimitation, re-engagement with China on legal positions and engagement with other claimants and the ASEAN on the same basis.

"Therefore, its only policy framework for addressing and eventually resolving the South China Sea disputes must be based on the peaceful modes of dispute settlement enumerated in the Charter of the United Nations and Part XV of UNCLOS," Batongbacal said in his article in the report.

READ: Does the Philippines have limited options on the South China Sea issue?

Code of Conduct

At a press conference last Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Junever Mahilum-West said Duterte might raise the Recto Bank issue at the coming summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Thailand as part of talks on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

“And in these negotiations, incidents like what happened to our fishermen will be among those on the agenda, during the negotiations,” Mahilum-West said.

“During the exchange of views on regional developments, there is an opening to raise these issues. Because incidents like what happened emphasizes the importance of having a Code of Conduct so that we could avoid, we could prevent these incidents from happening in the future,” she added.

READ: Philippines has 'opening' to raise Recto Bank collision at ASEAN summit

Analysts say the incident near Recto Bank highlights the urgent need for toughened-up terms in a Code of Conduct for clashes between fishermen at sea.

Fifteen years ago, China and ASEAN members committed to sign a CoC, but progress has been slow amid the maritime dispute.

In the absence of a legally binding agreement, the parties involved adopted in 2002 a separate document called the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which urges claimants to exercise restraint and non-militarization of the sea.

Duterte, along with other Cabinet members, will be attending the 34th ASEAN Summit in Thailand from June 22 to 23. — Ian Nicolas Cigaral with reports from Patricia Lourdes Viray and AFP

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