Philippine Non-Military Agencies to Coordinate on Patrols in Disputed South China Sea

2021-04-28
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Philippine Non-Military Agencies to Coordinate on Patrols in Disputed South China Sea Philippine Coast Guard patrol boat BRP Cabra (center) and two Bureau of Fisheries vessels are seen patrolling in the South China Sea, April 13-14, 2021.
Philippine Coast Guard handout via Reuters

The Philippines said Wednesday that non-military agencies were coordinating in deploying patrols to South China Sea waters which it claims, as Manila faces an unabated challenge from Chinese ships scattered within its exclusive economic zone.

Also on Wednesday, the Philippine defense department hit back at China’s criticism of its coast-guard exercises in Manila’s EEZ, saying Beijing had “no business telling the Philippines” what it could do within its waters.

Vessels from the coast guard, the fisheries bureau and the national police will be regularly deployed, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea announced. The West Philippine Sea is Manila’s designation for claimed territory in the South China Sea.

The non-military bodies “are closely coordinating in the continuous regular deployment of vessels in the country’s maritime domain for law enforcement, monitoring, ensuring the safety of the Filipino fishermen, and protecting the environment,” the national task force said in a statement.

The deployment of non-military patrols would complement Manila’s naval fleet already out on the water.

Deployments are planned at Scarborough Shoal and at a chain of Philippine-controlled reefs and islets in the disputed Spratly Islands, including Thitu (Pag-asa) Island and Second Thomas Shoal, which host a small detachment of Filipino marines.

These areas have seen a lingering presence of Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing ships, which Manila believes are manned by maritime militia.

Military patrols had spotted three China Coast Guard vessels at Scarborough Shoal, one in the Spratly Islands, and one at Second Thomas Shoal, the Philippine national task force said Wednesday in its latest report.

An ongoing diplomatic spat between Manila and Beijing began after the Philippines said it spotted more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels at Whitsun Reef, first reported by Manila in early March.

Whitsun Reef is about 175 nautical miles (324 km) off the Philippine island province of Palawan and within the country’s 200-nautical mile (370-km) EEZ.

Beijing denied the accusations and ignored Manila’s demands for a pullout, prompting Manila to file daily diplomatic protests with Beijing, including on Wednesday. Beijing also claims Whitsun Reef as part of its territories in the contested waterway.

The number of Chinese vessels in the Philippine EEZ had decreased to about 160 as of April 20, Manila said Wednesday.

By deploying civilian patrols to protect and assist Filipino fishing boats, Manila hopes to avoid provoking a naval standoff with Beijing, like at Scarborough Shoal nine years ago, officials had said.

In 2012, the Chinese seized Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground within the Philippines’ EEZ, after a two-month standoff with the Philippine Navy.

Beijing has maintained control of the shoal ever since, with its coast guard keeping traditional Filipino fishermen at bay.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to requests for comment from BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, on Wednesday.

‘China is encroaching’

Meanwhile, the Philippines responded to China’s opposition to its coast-guard exercises in Manila’s EEZ.

The Coast Guard and the agriculture department’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources started their first-ever “comprehensive maritime exercises” in the Spratly Islands and at Scarborough Shoal on Saturday.

These joint exercises, a prelude to a heavier presence in the South China Sea, will run for at least 10 days.

They involve a total of eight vessels from both non-military agencies, including the coast guard’s most advanced offshore patrol ship, BRP Gabriela Silang.

A July 2016 U.N.-backed tribunal’s ruling had affirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the waterway, Philippine Department of National Defense spokesman Arsenio Andalong said.

“The arbitral award has categorically stated that the Chinese claim bounded by their so-called nine-dash line according to their ‘historical right’ has no basis in fact,” Andalong said in a statement.

“Therefore, it is they who are encroaching and should desist and leave. We will continue to do what is necessary to protect our sovereign rights.”

Beijing refuses to recognize the arbitral award, saying it has “historical rights” to much of the South China Sea. China has laid claim to most of the waterway using its so-called Nine-Dash Line, which appears on Chinese maps of the sea.

On Monday, China said it enjoyed sovereignty in the Spratly Islands, Thitu Island, the Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal, and their adjacent waters, and the Philippines must respect this sovereignty and “stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes.”

Six other Asian governments – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have territorial claims or maritime boundaries that overlap with China.

While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the waterway that overlap with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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