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China blockade shifts focus on bullying

Publication Date : 31-03-2014

 

Two small Philippine fisheries boats ferrying food supplies to a tiny detachment of Filipino troops on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal slipped past a blockade of two Chinese Coast Guard ships on Saturday, breaking into the international news spotlight the escalating territorial disputes between China and the Philippines and five other countries in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

The evasion of the blockade, reported with journalists’ photos of the encounter, grabbed the headlines in international and Philippine media, including the World News of BBC on Sunday. Although the encounter was nonviolent, the event highlighted and shifted focus on the aggressive Chinese bullying of rival claimants on disputed territories, and put it side by side with news of the Russian annexation of Crimea.

The two separate events—while taking place in distant regions, one in Russia and Ukraine, and the other in Asia-Pacific—have been elevated to the United Nations as two of the most critical flash points of a potential global armed conflict since the Second World War.

The UN General Assembly on Thursday adopted a Western-backed resolution declaring Crimea’s breakaway referendum from Ukraine illegitimate and refusing to recognize Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.

In the South China Sea, Filipino and foreign journalists on board the Philippine ships took photos and reported efforts by a much-larger Chinese Coast Guard ship to block access of the Filipino resupply boats to the Filipino Marines stationed on Second Thomas Shoal, known as Ayungin in Manila and Rena’I Reef in Beiing.

The journalists were invited by the Philippine military to show alleged bullying by Chinese vessels in the disputed waters where Philippine troops are stationed on a beached rusting military ship that has become a symbol of Philippine occupancy of the shoal.

No reassurance

Eyewitness reports, including those by Inquirer journalists, said a Chinese Coast Guard ship twice crossed the bow of the smaller vessels carrying supplies in an attempt to stop them from moving ahead. It radioed the Filipinos, telling them not to enter “Chinese territory.” But the Filipino captain maneuvered his boat to shallow waters where the larger Chinese ship could not follow without the risk of running aground.

The Philippine vessel managed to slip past the Chinese blockade to reach Ayungin Shoal, where a handful of Marines are stationed in a Navy vessel that has been grounded there since 1999 to assert Philippine sovereignty. The military said the civilian ship, a research vessel of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources with soldiers on board, completed its mission to deliver supplies to the BRP Sierra Madre and rotate the troops.

A spokesperson for the military’s Western Command, told reporters: “They were able to pass through the Chinese Coast Guard vessel and the mission is a success. We have successfully resupplied and rotated the troops.” There was no reassurance that the Chinese would lift their blockade to block future efforts to resupply the troops.

According to an Agence France-Presse reporter, who was on board a Philippine military plane circling the area, four Chinese vessels had encircled Ayungin Shoal as the Philippine ship approached. Two of the vessels, with “China Coast Guard” written on their hulls, then chased the Philippine boat, and tried to block it from reaching the shoal.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Saturday, for the second time in March, filed a protest against Chinese “harassment” in Ayungin Shoal. The DFA condemned the “harassment by the Chinese Coast Guard of our civilian vessels, which were on their way to the Ayungin Shoal to resupply provisions of our personnel stationed there.”
It reiterated that the Ayungin Shoal “is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf and therefore has sovereign rights and jurisdiction over it.”

Philippine challenge

“We demand that China cease taking actions that are a threat to our security,” it said.

The latest encounter at Ayungin Shoal took place as the Philippines prepared to file a “memorial” or memorandum with the UN arbitral tribunal at The Hague, challenging China’s territorial claim to most of the South China Sea. The memorandum, filed on Sundday, seeks to nullify China’s “nine-dash-line” claim to the entire South China Sea.

It is not clear how the recent media reports on the encounters in Ayungin Shoal would help support its position in the arbitration case. What’s clear is that the Philippines is pushing its petition despite China’s warnings and threats of sanctions if Manila went ahead.

China has refused to take part in the process, saying that it “does not accept arbitration initiated by the Philippines.”

With or without Chinese participation, the tribunal is prepared to hear the Philippines’ case. The tribunal on Aug. 27, 2013, ordered the Philippines to file a memorial to “fully address all issues, including matters relating to the Arbitral Tribunal, the admissibility of the Philippines’ claim, as well as the merits of the dispute.”

It also said it would “determine the further course of the proceedings, including the need for and scheduling of any other written submissions and hearings, at an appropriate later stage, after seeking the views of other parties.”

Legal authorities said proceedings in the tribunal would continue even with only one party participating, in accordance with the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, on which the Philippines’ case is based. A DFA official said the memorial would include Chinese incursions that the Philippines had protested. The memorial “will include everything that will bolster our case,” the official said.

 

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