President Rodrigo Duterte could be in a tricky situation right now as superpowers China and the United States (US) escalate the tension in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Duterte has been fostering friendship with China since the start of his presidency while keeping the Philippines’ connection alive with the long-time ally US. 

In recent months, coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic, China has become more aggressive in establishing its presence in the South China Sea, part of which is the West Philippines Sea (WPS). This caught the attention not only of the claimant countries in Southeast Asia but also the US and its allies.

Last Tuesday (April 21), USS America’s Facebook page released some photos of the amphibious assault ship of the US Navy treading the South China Sea off Malaysia. Two other US Navy ships, the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill and the destroyer USS Barry, along with Australia’s HMAS Parramatta, joined the deployment close to where the Chinese government’s survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 operates.

This came a few days after US President Donald Trump made a phone call to President Duterte Sunday (April 19) to talk about bilateral cooperation on the COVID-19 response. Trump and Duterte also discussed bolstering their countries’ security ties. A few days later, the US Embassy in Manila confirmed the additional P269 million aid for the country’s battle against COVID-19.

While the US has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, the US Navy has shown its commitment to keeping the peace in the disputed waters for decades. 

“Through our continued operational presence in the South China Sea, we are working with our allies and partners to promote freedom of navigation and overflight, and the international principles that underpin security and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a spokeswoman for the US Indo-Pacific Command.

“The US supports the efforts of our allies and partners to determine their own economic interests,” she added.

“During the passage exercises, the ships honed interoperability between Australian and US navies, including replenishment-at-sea, aviation operations, maritime manoeuvres, and communications drills,” Australian defense department explained. Australia is the strategic arm of the United Kingdom (UK) in the Indo-Pacific region.

Diplomatic protests versus China

On Thursday (April 23), Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro “Teddy” Locsin Jr. filed two diplomatic protests versus China over alleged violations of international law and the Philippine sovereignty in WPS. 

Locsin tweeted the protests, addressing China’s establishment of two districts in the WPS and the alleged harassment of a Philippine Navy ship.

“At 5:17 pm today the Chinese embassy received 2 diplomatic protests: 1. on the pointing of a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship in PH waters & 2. declaring parts of Philippine territory as part of Hainan province—both violations of international law & Philippine sovereignty,” he said.

In a statement, the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Western Command (WESCOM) confirmed the encounter on February 17. A Chinese warship with bow number 514 pointed its guns with “hostile intent” at the BRP Conrado Yap (PS39), a Philippine Navy corvette. 

“PS39 was able to visually observe that the [Chinese ship’s] GCD (gun control director) was directed toward PS39. This GCD can be used to designate and track targets and makes all the main guns ready to fire in under a second,” WESCOM added.

Locsin’s second diplomatic protest covers China’s declaration of “parts of a Philippine territory as part of Hainan province” through the establishment of two administrative districts in the South China Sea. Earlier, former DFA Secretary Albert Del Rosario urged the Duterte administration to file a diplomatic protest because of the new Chinese districts.

China Global Television Network (CGTN) reported on April 18 China has established two new districts covering Paracel Islands, Zhongsha Islands, where Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal belongs, Woody Island, Kalayaan (Spratly) Islands, and Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef.

Xisha district will oversee the Paracel and Zhongsha islands and its surrounding waters from Woody Island, which is claimed by both China and Vietnam. The Paracel Islands are both claimed by China and Vietnam. The entirety of the Zhongsha Islands is both claimed by China and Taiwan, while the Philippines claim Panatag Shoal.

The second district, called Nansha, will be governing the Kalayaan Islands and its surrounding waters. Its government will hold office on Kagitingan Reef. Kalayaan Islands’ claimants include Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam, apart from China and the Philippines.

A report showing Chinese research stations in Kalayaan Islands, specifically in Kagitingan and Zamora (Subi) Reefs. The report came shortly before China donated COVID-19 test kits to the country in March. China now has seven man-made military bases in Kalayaan. 

Vietnam, one of the claimant countries in the South China Sea, also reported that the Chinese survey ship, encountered by Vietnamese vessels last year, has returned to waters covered by Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. 

Earlier this month, a China patrol vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel, similar to the ramming incident of a Chinese fishing vessel versus a Philippine fishing boat. The Chinese trawler abandoned 22 Filipinos struggling in the water before Vietnamese fishermen rescued them.

There’s strength in numbers

Despite Duterte’s pro-China stance, the United States still clearly sees the Philippines as a strategic and valuable ally in the Indo-Pacific region. The US Navy’s action with an ally, like Australia, of making a presence in the South China Sea, gives us an assurance that the US and its allies are all set to help us and the other claimants in the region safeguard our rights in the disputed waters. Meanwhile, China’s conscious and continuous movement in the South China Sea should have given Duterte a warning that dealing with Beijing is like treading dangerous waters. 

President Trump, one of the most powerful leaders in the world, reaching out to Duterte during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, which coincides with the tension in the South China Sea, says a lot. It bolsters the assurance that our long-time ally can help us impose our sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. The country’s diplomatic protests, along with those of our neighboring countries like Vietnam, came just in time with the increasing US presence to slow down Chinese aggression in the region. With the Philippines united with other countries, we can keep China’s bullying at bay while protecting our territory and sovereignty.

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