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Philippines files diplomatic protests against Beijing’s moves in South China Sea

US and Singapore Navy ships transit South China Sea in formation (U.S. Navy/Released)
April 25, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The Philippines filed two diplomatic protests against Beijing on Wednesday, saying it violated international law through recent actions in the South China Sea, including by declaring parts of the disputed waters as Chinese districts, according to Manila’s top envoy.

The protests were delivered to the Chinese Embassy in Manila after office hours, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said.

They were for the “pointing of a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship in PH waters” and for “declaring parts of the Philippine territory as part of Hainan province,” Locsin posted on Twitter. He said both actions constituted “violations of international law and Philippine sovereignty.”

“China created Nansha district under the jurisdiction of Sansha city, akin to something we already protested in 2012,” the foreign secretary added. “Old hat but bears repeating in the protest.”

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Locsin did not elaborate on the alleged radar-gun incident.

Late Wednesday, officials from the Philippine Navy and the armed forces declined to comment. China’s embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to phone calls from BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

Manila made the accusations against Beijing as the U.S. Pacific Fleet announced that an Australian frigate, the HMAS Parramatta, joined three U.S. Navy ships during exercises in the South China Sea on April 18.

“It is great to be operating with the Australians again,” the Pacific Fleet quoted Capt. Kurt Sellerberg, commanding officer of the USS Bunker Hill, as saying in a statement. The guided missile-cruiser was with an amphibious U.S. assault ship and another warship, USS America, during the maneuvering exercise with the Australians, which was observed or participated in by over 3,000 sailors, it said.

This comes after the USS America and Bunker Hill sailed near the Chinese survey ship Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, which is operating at the site of recent oil exploration inside Malaysian waters.

On Tuesday, the USS America was within 60 nautical miles of the West Capella, the Malaysian-contracted drill ship being shadowed by China’s survey vessel and coastguard, according to vessel-tracking software.

According to Patrick Buchan, a former Australian government official and the director of the U.S. Alliances Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, this latest joint effort by their navies demonstrates the closeness of the alliance between the United States and Australia.

“This is yet another example of Australia increasing its interoperability with the U.S. Navy on the high seas, but it’s particularly gratifying to see Australia operating with U.S. vessels at this time in the South China Sea,” he said.

Australia has participated in freedom of navigation and freedom of flight exercises in the South China Sea, but has a neutral stance on the various claims made by states in the area.

Nonetheless, Buchan emphasized that Australia has a stake in the stability and openness of the region. Australia’s top trading partners are all in Northeast Asia, he pointed out. “It’s critical for its trade links that no single country dominates the South China Sea,” he said.

Manila, Hanoi, US criticize China

The Philippines lodged the new diplomatic protests barely two weeks after Manila joined Hanoi and the United States in criticizing China over the alleged sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese coast guard ship near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

The “statement of solidarity” from Manila rebuked Beijing for the incident, and said it was an act of needless provocation at a time when countries in the region were busy trying to contain a pneumonia-like virus, which has killed thousands and left millions sick around the world.

In the wake of the April 2 sinking, China claimed that the Vietnamese boat sank itself by ramming into its coast guard ship.

Locsin issued his statement about the diplomatic protests three days after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had a one-on-one call with U.S. President Donald Trump, during which the two discussed bolstering bilateral ties as their countries continued to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Both leaders agreed to continue working together as long-time allies to defeat the pandemic, save lives and restore global economic strength,” the U.S. Embassy in Manila said on Monday.

“The two leaders also discussed how the United States and the Philippines can continue building upon the strong and enduring economic, cultural and security ties binding the two nations,” it said.

On Tuesday, the U.S. military said it had sent an amphibious assault ship and a guided missile cruiser to the site of an ongoing survey by a Chinese vessel in Malaysian waters in the South China Sea, signaling Washington’s support for other countries in the region as Beijing pressed its advantage in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak.

Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, spokeswoman for the Hawaii-based U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, confirmed that the USS America and USS Bunker Hill had been deployed to the South China Sea.

“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,” she wrote in an email. “The U.S. supports the efforts of our allies and partners to determine their own economic interests.”

Satellite imagery from Tuesday provided by the European Union through the EO Browser service confirmed that the USS America was then less than 60 nautical miles from the West Capella, a Malaysian-contracted oil exploration vessel. In close proximity, there were a combination of Chinese survey vessels, coast guard and maritime militia ships, according to vessel tracking software.

The Chinese survey vessel, named the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, arrived in Malaysian waters on April 16 and was last tracked surveying an area within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, between the West Capella and Malaysia’s coast.

As of Tuesday morning (local time), the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was around 180 nautical miles from the Malaysian coast – but only 100 nautical miles from the Luconia Shoals, which are claimed by both China and Malaysia. On April 17, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was also within 200 nautical miles of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.

China has said that the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was conducting normal activities.

At the weekend, announced two new administrative districts for South China Sea and released a new map naming all the islands and reefs it claims in the contested region.

The United States, for its part, in recent week had withdrawn key military assets from the Western Pacific region.

The aircraft carrier the USS Theodore Roosevelt had to be pulled out of active deployment on March 26 due to dangerous rates of coronavirus infections among its crew. On April 17, the U.S. Air Force announced that it would stop deploying strategic bombers to its base on the Pacific island of Guam.

China claims most of the South China Sea on historical grounds, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Apart from the three countries, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims over the region.