In the latest sign of escalating tensions in the disputed South China Sea, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has suspended a hotline with its Chinese counterpart.
The move comes amid China’s de facto blockage of a Philippine marine detachment at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, the latest flash point between the two rival claimants.
For all maritime incidents [with China] that happened in the past six years even in the past [Duterte] administration, this hotline was attempted to be used, but US political interference changes the narrative.
The bilateral coast guard hotline was established under a memorandum of understanding signed during former President Rodrigo Duterte’s much-vaunted visit to Beijing in 2016.
Despite welcoming a new golden age of bilateral ties with China, the Ferdinand Marcos Jr administration has flipped the script on Duterte’s accommodate stance by taking an increasingly defiant position on the sea disputes amid warming defense ties with the USA.
Encouraged by Marcos’ tough stance, Philippine officials and experts are now contemplating even more radical moves to fortify the Southeast Asian nation’s South China Sea claims.
Marcos Jr is coming under growing pressure to greenlight the full refurbishment of the grounded World War II-era vessel BRP Sierra Madre in the contested Second Thomas Shoal, where a detachment of Philippine marines has been asserting de facto control since 1999.
There are growing calls on allies, especially the USA and Japan, to either escort resupply missions that China has harassed, if not directly help construction activities in the area.
Some Philippine officials have gone so far as to suggest that Marcos Jr offer its key bases in the area, particularly on Thitu Island, as a potential site for American troops under an expanded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
At the heart of rising tensions in recent days is the Chinese Coast Guard’s use of water cannons to disrupt Philippine resupply missions on the Second Thomas Shoal, also known as Ayungin Shoal.
During a recent forum in Manila organized by Beijing-friendly elements in the Philippines, the Chinese Embassy’s deputy chief of mission Zhou Zhiyong called on Marcos to meet China half-way and honor an alleged past promise to withdraw the grounded vessel from the shoal.
The Chinese official claimed that his country has repeatedly expressed its willingness to resolve differences with the Philippines through bilateral dialogues.
We hope that the Philippines side will abide by the existing consensus and cherish the hard-won situation in our bilateral relations. Meet the Chinese side halfway and find an effective way of managing the situation on the sea through diplomatic consultations.
The Philippine side… made explicit commitments to do so. The representations were put on record and well documented. It’s been 24 years and the Philippines side has yet to honor its commitment.
China and its impresarios have claimed that the former Joseph Estrada administration (1998-2001) offered to withdraw the vessel not long after grounding it to assert the Philippines’ claim in the area.
Just a few years earlier, China forcibly seized the nearby Mischief Reef, sparking panic and fury in Manila. Estrada’s two sons in the Philippine Senate, however, emphatically denied the existence of any such agreement.
With the rusty, dilapidated vessel expected to give way in the near future, there is growing pressure on the Marcos Jr administration to make more assertive moves in tandem with allies.
We can have joint patrols with the USA at the same time [as the next resupply mission to the Second Thomas Shoal]. We can calibrate it, former senior associate justice Antonio Carpio said in a forum.
They sent their Navy together with the survey ship and the drilling ship, and, at the same time, the USA and Australia conducted naval drills in the same area – that’s for Malaysia.
For Indonesia, the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan happened to pass by, referring to joint USA-Australian patrols when Malaysia began challenging China’s unilateral oil exploration activities in contested sea areas.
It is in our national interest to pursue and expand our defense partnership with the USA to deter further aggression from China in the West Philippine Sea and possible Chinese seizure of islets that belong to us under international law.
The expanded EDCA should be further broadened. More sites along our western seaboard, where Chinese aggression and harassment of our fishermen have been taking place, should be covered.
The Marcos Jr administration will likely shun such radical proposals since even the USA might have second thoughts about directly assisting Philippine control over contested features.
Many supporters in Manila are hoping that stronger military ties with allies would enhance the country’s deterrence vis-à-vis China
With or without that US commitment, a moment of reckoning appears to be approaching in the disputed waters.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2023.