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An aerial view of the Philippine Sierra Madre vessel that has been grounded at the Second Thomas Shoal since 1999 to assert its sovereignty. Photo: AFP

Philippines says China is ‘the trespasser’ as it refuses to move ship from disputed South China Sea shoal

  • Philippines Beijing’s demands to move Sierra Madre from Second Thomas Shoal after incident in which Chinese coastguard fired water cannons on resupply ships
  • Meanwhile, foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr praises Manila’s relationship with Japan and others question President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘appeasement’ of China
The Philippines has rejected a demand from China that it remove a naval vessel grounded on a shoal in the South China Sea that has been the centre of heated exchanges between the two countries in recent days.
Philippine defence chief Delfin Lorenzana on Thursday said Beijing’s demand that it remove the BRP Sierra Madre from the Second Thomas Shoal – part of the disputed Spratly chain of islands – was “baseless” and it was China that was the “trespasser” in the area.

The Philippines deliberately ran aground the vessel at the shoal – which is claimed by various other nations – in 1999, in response to the Chinese reclamation of Mischief Reef. It has kept a small group of navy personnel based on the 100 metre, US-built landing craft ever since to underline its claim that the shoal is within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Manila says that in recent days Chinese coastguard ships blocked two Philippine boats from resupplying the troops on the Sierra Madre, firing water cannons at them. Manila responded to the incident by warning Beijing that its supply vessels were covered by its defence treaty with the United States.

On Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian shot back by saying China demanded “that the Philippine side honour its commitment and remove its illegally grounded vessel from Ren’ai Jiao ... This position remains unchanged.”

China refers to the Second Thomas Shoal as “Ren’ai Jiao”; Manila calls it “Ayungin”.

A Philippine flag flutters from the BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated Philippine Navy ship that has been aground since 1999 on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters

But Lorenzana, in comments posted on Facebook, said there was “no such commitment”.

“That ship has been there since 1999. If there was a commitment it would have been removed a long time ago.

“Ayungin Shoal lies within our EEZ, where we have sovereign rights. Our EEZ was awarded to us by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China ratified. China should abide by its international obligations.”

Lorenzana also noted the 2016 arbitral award by an international court in The Hague that ruled China’s territorial claims to more than 90 per cent of the South China Sea had no historic or legal basis.

“Ergo, we can do whatever we want there and it is they who are actually trespassing,” Lorenzana said, adding in Filipino, “we have two documents that prove we have sovereign rights in our EEZ while they have none and their claim is baseless.”

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Soon after posting his comments online, Lorenzana spoke at an online national security forum sponsored by the Stratbase ADR Institute, a think tank in Manila chaired by former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario.

During the forum, Lorenzana said he had told the Chinese ambassador Huang Xilian that “no one can prevent us from doing what we have to do within the West Philippine Sea where we have sovereign rights under international law”.

The West Philippine Sea is the term Manila uses to describe the eastern parts of the South China Sea that are within its EEZ and territorial waters.

Lorenzana has previously claimed that Huang had promised to look into the Chinese coastguard’s alleged blocking of the resupply vessels.

Filipino activists and fisherman protest at the Chinese consulate in Makati, Philippines, against China’s actions over the Second Thomas Shoal. Photo: EPA

Praise for Japan, ‘appeasement’ of China questioned

At the same forum, in a pre-recorded speech, Philippine foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr praised his country’s security arrangements with other nations, saying the partnerships corrected an imbalance of power and discouraged “unilateral aggression” in the troubled sea.

Locsin did not explicitly refer to China during the nearly 13-minute speech, but did praise Japan because it “continues to pour valuable support” towards the Philippine’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure programme.

In 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte had lavishly thanked China for pledging US$10 billion for the BBB programme. However, critics such as political scientist Richard Heydarian have since questioned China’s commitment to its promise, referring to it as a “pledge trap” from which Beijing has gained more than it has given.

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Also at the forum, maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal said the recent incident at the shoal was “a very, very clear indication that China will continue to use grey zone operations meant to [acquire] and control large areas of the South China Sea.”

With the Philippines expected to elect a new president in May 2022 – Duterte must step down because the constitution limits presidents to a single term – Batongbacal urged the next leader to take a tougher stance on China’s maritime claims. He warned that a repeat of Duterte’s “appeasement of China” would “fuel disaster” as China’s continuous build-up of artificial military islands was destroying coral reefs.

Filipino marines stationed aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters

Batongbacal warned that the election period, when politicians were distracted, would give China an “opportunity for a crisis” and that it could use this period to build on Scarborough Shoal – another island that is within the Philippine EEZ but is claimed (and in this case controlled) by China.

China has previously refrained from building on the shoal, after Duterte said this was a “red line”.

Security expert Renato de Castro told the forum that after five years of appeasing China, the Duterte administration had shifted to a “limited balancing strategy” through Lorenzana and Locsin. He said it was a tacit admission that appeasement had failed.

Under the next president, “we cannot afford another six years of defeatism and appeasement,” he said.

De Castro, who teaches international relations at De La Salle University, urged the next president to equip the military, develop asymmetric warfare capabilities and strengthen military and security alliances with countries including the US.