(First of two parts)
On March 18, officials from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) met in Singapore to resume consultations on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that began last September. This meeting should have created an at–mosphere for the lowering of tensions in the South China Sea. At the least, China and the Asean claimant states could have been expected to avoid provocations while the co-nsultations were progressing.
Just the opposite occurred. Nine days before the Asean-China discussions commenced, Chinese Coast Guard vessels stationed at Second Thomas Shoal took the unprecedented action of blocking routine resupply for Philippine Marines stationed at the shoal.
At the end of March, as the deadline approached for the Philippines to submit its memorial to the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal set up to hear Philippine claims regarding its maritime entitlements under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China un–leashed a shrill diplomatic attack on the Philippines.
In the midst of these developments, South China Sea claimant states began to push back against China’s assertiveness.
Indonesia and the Philippines both took steps to shore up their maritime defense forces against future contingencies in the South China Sea. Vietnam pressed China for compensation for harassing its fishermen in disputed waters around the Paracel Islands while quietly taking delivery of its second Kilo-class submarine.
Resupplying Second Thomas Shoal
On March 9, two Chinese Coast Guard ships stationed at Second Thomas Shoal (known as Ayungin shoal in the Philippines and Ren’ai Reef in China) intercepted two Philip–pine-flagged civilian vessels making a routine resupply run to the shoal and ordered them to return to port. The vessels were carrying supplies to Philippine Marines deployed at the shoal on the BRP Sierra Madre, a beached LST still in commission in the Philip–pine Navy.
This was first time Chinese ships had physically interfered in this manner.
The Philippines responded by summoning a senior Chi–nese diplomat to the De–partment of Foreign Affairs to deliver a protest. The Chinese official was told that the actions by the Coast Guard ships were “a clear and urgent threat to the rights and interests of the Philippines.”
A spokesperson for the United States Department of State went on record as saying that “This is a provocative move that raises tensions. Pending resolution of competing claims in the South China Sea, there should be no interference with the efforts of claimants to maintain the status quo.”
China’s Foreign Ministry accused the Philippines of attempting to build structures on Second Thomas Shoal in violation of the 2002 Dec–laration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). This accusation ignored the fact that the Philippines had occupied Second Thomas Shoal three years before the DOC was issued.
The Philippines then resorted to airdrops to resupply the Marines. On March 29, the Philippines mounted a second resupply effort by sea. The Philippine supply vessel was once again challenged by two Coast Guard ships who ordered it to “stop all” illegal activities. The resupply vessel outwitted the Chinese ships by sailing through waters too shallow for them to follow.
This turn of events led a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson to accuse the Philippines of illegally occupy–ing Chinese territory.
As of this writing, the standoff continues and it remains to be seen if China will reinforce its presence at Second Thomas Shoal and adopt even more aggressive tactics to prevent future Philippine resupply efforts.
China may be constrained, however, by the impending visit of President Barack Obama to the Philippines in April.
Philippines Submits Memorial to the Arbitral Tribunal
On March 30, the Philippines submitted its memorial to the UN Arbitral Tribunal outlining its case for a determination of its maritime entitlements under international law. The Philippines’ memorial comprised 10 volumes running to more than 4,000 pages.
The Philippine claim, ini–tially filed in January, was amended to include Ayungin Shoal in light of China’s actions in blocking supply.
The Philippines made its submission despite intense pressure by China on the Philippines to drop its claim and resume direct bila- teral negotiations.
Immediately prior to the Philippines’ submission, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson publicly called on the Philippines “to stop its wrongdoing” and withdraw from arbitral proceedings. The spokesperson also declared that China “will neither accept the unilateral action of the Philip–pines nor be present in the international arbitration.” This refrain was repeated by other Chinese officials.
On March 30, China’s Fo–reign Ministry called on the Philippines to honor their commitments under the DOC “and return to the correct path of bilateral talks in resolving disputes.” The following day the Foreign Ministry sum–moned Erlinda Basilo, the Philippine Ambassador to China, to receive a “solemn representation” from Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin. Liu noted that China was “extremely dissatisfied and resolutely opposed” to the international arbitration.
On April 1, the Chinese Charge d’Affairs in Manila issued a strongly worded statement that declared, “we are deeply disturbed by and concerned with the consequences of such moves.” The Charge then stated that the actions by the Philippines “seriously damaged bilateral relations.”
(To be concluded)