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Philippines summons Chinese envoy over latest reef clash

March 25, 2024

Manila has dared Beijing to take legal action over its claims to a disputed reef in the South China Sea. China's territorial claims in the South China Sea were already dismissed by a Hague tribunal in 2016.

A Chinese Coast Guard vessel blasts a Philippine supply boat with a water canon during a previous clash on March 5, 2024.
A Chinese Coast Guard vessel blasts a Philippine supply boat with a water canon during a previous clash on March 5, 2024.Image: Aaron Favila/AP Photo/picture alliance

The diplomatic stand-off between China and the Philippines over a disputed shoal and surrounding waters in the South China Sea continued on Monday. Manila summoned a Chinese envoy to protest the latest attempts by Chinese vessels to disrupt Philippine activities in the area.

In a statement, the Philippines' Foreign Ministry condemned the "aggressive actions undertaken by the China Coast Guard and Chinese Maritime Militia against the rotation and resupply mission undertaken by the Philippines in Ayungin Shoal" – the Filipino name for Second Thomas Shoal.

Why are China and the Philippines arguing over a shoal?

The shoal, which is claimed by Beijing, is around 200 kilometers from the western Philippine island of Palawan, and more than 1,000 kilometers from China's nearest major landmass, Hainan island.

It is home to a small detachment of Filipino marines garrisoned on the "BRP Sierra Madre," a dilapidated warship intentionally run aground on the shoal in 1999. 

On Saturday, a routine Philippine mission to resupply the soldiers was again disrupted by Chinese vessels, which Manila said had blocked its supply boat and damaged one of its accompanying patrol boats with water canon, injuring three soldiers.

"China's continued interference with the Philippines' routine and lawful activities in its own exclusive economic zone is unacceptable," continued the Philippines' foreign ministry statement.

"It infringes upon the Philippines' sovereign rights and jurisdiction. The Philippines demands that Chinese vessels leave the vicinity of Ayungin Shoal and the Philippine exclusive economic zone immediately."

Photo taken in November 2023 shows Philippine coast guard personnel on an inflatable motorboat with the grounded BRP Sierra Madre in the background
The BRP Sierra Madre, a former US warship which served in WW2 and the Vietnam War, was transferred to the Philippine Navy, which intentionally ran her aground on the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999.Image: JAM STA ROSA/AFP/Getty Images

China accuses Philippines of 'illegal intrusion'

The Chinese Coast Guard has defended its actions, describing them as "lawful regulation, interception and expulsion" of a "foreign vessel" that "tried to forcefully intrude" into Chinese waters – which Beijing considers almost the entire South China Sea to be.

On Monday, the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines said via social network WeChat that it had "made solemn representations to the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the recent illegal intrusion of Philippine ships into Ren'ai Reef" – employing the Chinese name for the shoal.

Speaking to reporters, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry claimed that Manila had promised to remove the BRP Sierra Madre 20 years ago but had "never honored its word."

The Philippines Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro refused to budge and dared Beijing to take its territorial claims to international arbitration, which he said was the "best way of solving a legal dispute sustainably."

He added: "If China is not afraid to state its claims to the world, then why don't we arbitrate under international law?"

Later, the Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong held a phone call with his Philippine counterpart, Maria Theresa Lazaro, making "stern representations on issues including the Philippines' transportation of supplies to the illegally 'beached' military ship on Ren'ai Reef."

In 2013, the Philippines challenged China's South China Sea claims at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The international tribunal ruled in 2016 that China's claims to "historic rights and resources" within the so-called nine-dash line had "no legal basis." 

US backs the Philippines

Since taking office in June 2022, Philippines President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. has sought to deepen cooperation with the United States and has stood up to Chinese aggression towards Philippine vessels, leading to a cooling of relations with Beijing.

In January, the two countries agreed on the need for closer dialogue on territorial disputes but Manila said on Monday that China's "aggressive actions call into question its sincerity in lowering the tensions and promoting peace and stability in the South China Sea."

The United States, which has a mutual defense pact with Manila, also denounced the latest attack which came just days after visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US stood by its "ironclad" commitments to defend the Philippines. 

China, Philippines row over claims in South China Sea

mf/wmr (AFP, Reuters)