Philippines govt: "All options are open on South China Sea"

On Thursday, Philippines said it would keep "all our options open" as a response to Beijing grows over hundreds of Chinese vessels in the contested South China Sea.
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On Thursday, Philippines said it would keep "all our options open" as a response to Beijing grows over hundreds of Chinese vessels in the contested South China Sea.

China, which claims almost the entirety of the sea, has refused repeated appeals by the Philippines to withdraw the vessels, which Manila says unlawfully entered its exclusive economic zone.

Tensions over the resource-rich waters have spiked in recent weeks after more than 200 Chinese boats were detected at Whitsun Reef, in the Spratly Islands, where China and the Philippines have rival claims Handout Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies/AFP
Tensions over the resource-rich waters have spiked in recent weeks after more than 200 Chinese boats were detected at Whitsun Reef, in the Spratly Islands, where China and the Philippines have rival claims Handout Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies/AFP

While President Rodrigo Duterte has appeared reluctant to confront China on the issue, one of his top aides warned Monday the boats could ignite "unwanted hostilities".

"As the situation (in the South China Sea) evolves, we keep all our options open in managing the situation, including leveraging our partnerships with other nations such as the United States," Philippine defense department spokesman Arsenio Andolong said Thursday.

Andolong's comments came after the United States reminded China of Washington's treaty obligations to the Philippines in the event of an attack in the waters.

"An armed attack against the Philippines' armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Wednesday.

Some of the about 220 Chinese vessels reported by the Philippine Coast Guard, and believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, are pictured at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, March 7, 2021. Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea/Handout via Reuters/file
Some of the about 220 Chinese vessels reported by the Philippine Coast Guard, and believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, are pictured at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, March 7, 2021. Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea/Handout via Reuters/file

Many of the boats detected at Whitsun Reef on March 7 have since scattered across the Spratly archipelago, which is also claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Beijing often invokes the so-called nine-dash line to justify its apparent historic rights over most of the South China Sea, and it has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared this assertion to be without basis.

Duterte, elected in 2016, put the sea dispute on the back burner as he sought closer economic ties with the Philippines' superpower neighbour and strike a course independent of its former colonial master the United States.

Philippines and China tension over South China Sea

Satellite view of fishing vessels in the Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef, in this Maxar image taken March 23.   © Reuters
Satellite view of fishing vessels in the Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef, in this Maxar image taken March 23. © Reuters

Philippine and Chinese embassy officials have been locked in a war of words since last month over the presence of nearly 200 Chinese ships which were first detected in the Whitsun Reef before spreading out to other areas in the disputed waters, according to Nikeii Asia.

Beijing has largely ignored Manila's demands for the vessels to leave, saying Whitsun Reef is part of China's territory. That has raised the ire of Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who over the weekend, accused Beijing of planning to occupy new features in the South China Sea.

On Monday, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs backed Lorenzana and reiterated his call for the withdrawal of the ships, which Manila's military says are part of China's "maritime militia."

"For every delay, the Republic of the Philippines will lodge a diplomatic protest," the foreign ministry said in a statement, which came just days after Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. met Foreign Minister Wang Yi in China last week.

The Philippine foreign ministry said it "strongly deplores" the spokesperson's remarks. It said "Chinese embassy officials are reminded that they are guests of the Philippine government" and "must accord respect to Philippine government officials."

Manila said the Chinese embassy statement "contained blatant falsehoods" such as claims that the Chinese vessels were sheltering from "adverse weather conditions when there were none" and the "nonexistence of maritime militia in the area."

Beijing did not take part and never recognized the arbitration. Meanwhile, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have overlapping claims over the vital waterway rich in fisheries and energy resources.

Manila's vocal stance on the Whitsun Reef issue shows "a deep suspicion" within the Philippine government that China intends to control Whitsun, similar to its takeover of Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012, a geopolitical expert said.

"They (Philippine officials) are seeing the footprints leading to a Chinese seizure again of this feature and transforming it into an artificial island then possibly a garrison," said Renato de Castro, international studies professor at De la Salle University in Manila.

"It is also a matter of showing to the Filipino people that we will not allow another Scarborough Shoal seizure," De Castro added.

China has not reclaimed Scarborough Shoal, which is also located within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. But in recent years, Beijing had transformed several reefs into artificial islands equipped with military infrastructure.

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