Philippines open to work with China on sea tensions

Marc Jayson Cayabyab - The Philippine Star
Philippines open to work with China on sea tensions
The presence of the China Coast Guard (CCG) persists despite the effort of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) to block them and assist the four main vessels of the second civilian resupply mission of the Atin Ito Coalition to the Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal in the West Philippine Sea on May 16, 2024.
STAR / Miguel De Guzman

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines remains open to bringing China back to the table for talks to resolve differences in the West Philippine Sea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said yesterday.

“We have been working hard to bring back China to the table to talk with us to resolve differences on these issues,” Manalo said at a public hearing of the Senate committee on foreign affairs yesterday.

The two countries held a working group meeting last week in preparation for a potential Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) meeting in July, Manalo told the Senate committee on foreign affairs.

He said the “primacy of dialogue and diplomacy even in the face of these serious incidents” highlighted last Friday’s National Maritime Council meeting attended by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

“Whatever confidence-building measures we achieve, they will be not at the expense of promotion of our sovereignty, sovereign rights, as well as our rights and jurisdiction on the West Philippine Sea,” he emphasized.

“Of course, I admit it’s also a challenge. Nevertheless, we will pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international laws,” he said.

In the BCM meeting next month, Manalo said the Philippines and China would try to determine “whether we can arrive at some understandings or confidence building measures, which could hopefully create a basis then for more serious discussions to see how we can address these other issues.”

He said the DFA had already “sternly” communicated with the Chinese embassy its position that it was “really incomprehensible how the delivery of basic necessities to our troops on the BRP Sierra Madre could be considered a provocation that would justify an increased level of Chinese actions.”

He maintained the China Coast Guard (CCG)’s behavior last June 17 in Ayungin Shoal “only intensified and escalated tensions,” and that it was “certainly, something we should be concerned about.”

He stressed while the Philippines has an agreed policy with China to “manage our maritime differences and not let incidents define our bilateral relations,” CCG’s aggressive actions at sea “are inconsistent with this declared intention.”

In an ambush interview after the hearing, Manalo said the DFA had also summoned the Chinese ambassador and filed a diplomatic protest.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea with its so-called nine-dash line, which overlaps the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines and other rival claimants Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

A 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling, which Beijing does not recognize, invalidated China’s claim in the strategic waters.

Conflicting statements

Also at the hearing, Sen. Imee Marcos said the administration appeared to be issuing conflicting statements on CCG’s latest act of aggression in Ayungin Shoal where its personnel committed “illegal use of force” to stop a resupply mission to BRP Sierra Madre on June 17.

Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin would later call the violent disruption of the resupply mission a “misunderstanding” and an “accident.”

But this was contradicted on Monday by Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and National Security Adviser Eduardo Año who – in a joint statement – accused the Chinese of “illegal use of force” against Filipinos involved in the resupply mission.

For Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., the Chinese committed an act of piracy.

Marcos said concerned administration officials should explain their seemingly conflicting pronouncements.

“The Filipino people are confused. We’re saying different things. Brawner says it’s piracy. Why did ES Bersamin conclude it differently?”

“He did not conclude. He probably wanted to make sure of the facts,” Teodoro said in response.

“So there was no verification? He (Bersamin) was just made to appear before a press conference and disowned later? What’s that supposed to mean?” Marcos asked

In reply, Teodoro said, “(Walang laglagan) no one was abandoned. He (Bersamin) was explaining the context.”

The Defense chief also maintained their stance was in accordance with the order of President Marcos that trouble or war should not come from the Philippines.

In a statement yesterday, the Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc. (FFCCCII) voiced support for the President’s call for diplomacy in addressing the tensions with China.

“We endorse his desire for a peaceful resolution of the foregoing, to choose earnest dialogue and pray for a de-escalation of tensions between our two countries,” FFCCCII said.

FFCCCII called on the governments of the Philippines and China to take paths that will safeguard the peace, order and safety of both countries and its people.

“Instead of strife, let us choose harmony. Instead of conflict, let us choose stability. In these tumultuous times, with rising tensions in other parts of the world, let us not risk the unity that has prevailed in our Asian region for hundreds of years,” FFCCCII said.

In addition, the countries have cultural and family ties as well as substantial economic partnerships.

“Together we endured the trials of World War II and remained allies in many ways. Our nations have consistently showcased the manifold benefits of mutual respect. As such, we implore both sides to refrain from actions or declarations that will only fuel the already precarious situation,” FFCCCII said.

“We firmly believe that only through constructive dialogue, devoid of reproach and condemnation, are we to find common ground that will lead to an amicable resolution of our differences,” FFCCCII pointed out.

More Chinese ships

But as the DFA chief was talking about his openness to dialogue with China, the AFP confirmed the growing number of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea as well as passing of a giant CCG vevessel near the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.

“The presence of this 12,000-ton CCG ship near BRP Sierra Madre is part of a broader pattern of intrusive patrols aimed at asserting unlawful claims over areas within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ),” AFP Public Affairs chief Col. Xerxes Trinidad said, without naming the vessel. He was apparently referring to China’s coast guard vessel – the world’s biggest coast guard ship – with bow number 5901 whose presence was first reported by maritime defense and security expert Ray Powell on his X account.

“We emphasize that such actions by the CCG are illegal, coercive and contrary to the spirit of maintaining peace and stability in the region,” Trinidad added.

The AFP, he said, is closely monitoring all activities in the West Philippine Sea as part of its commitment to maritime domain awareness and the protection of the Philippines’ territorial integrity, sovereignty and sovereign rights.

“Our forces will continue to monitor and report any developments in the WPS in the performance of our mandate,” Trinidad said. “We call on all nations to respect international law and to refrain from actions that escalate tensions in the WPS,” he added.

The Philippine Navy reported a total of 129 Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea from June 18 to June 24. — Pia Lee Brago, Evelyn Macairan, Cecille Suerte-Felipe, Louella Desiderio

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