MANILA – In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between China and a key regional partner, the Philippines has openly condemned the reported harassment of its resupply vessel while en route to the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.

The Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines this week reported that three Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked and shot water cannons at two Philippine resupply naval vessels that were transporting food supplies to Philippine military forces stationed on the contested shoal.

“I have conveyed in the strongest terms to H.E. Huang Xilian, Ambassador of China and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing our outrage, condemnation and protest of the incident,” said Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr in an official statement.

The outspoken Filipino diplomat warned China that any Philippine “public vessel is covered by the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty,” raising the possibility of joint intervention with American forces in the event of an escalation of the dispute.

He also threatened further diplomatic reprisals, warning “[any] failure to exercise self-restraint threatens the special relationship between the Philippines and China that President Rodrigo R Duterte and President Xi Jinping have worked hard to nurture.”

In response, Beijing lashed back by claiming that it was instead the Philippine vessels that “trespassed” into Chinese waters, while maintaining its openness to further communications to de-escalate the tensions.

For over two decades, the Philippines has maintained de facto control over the Second Thomas Shoal, a low-tide elevation that lies between the energy-rich waters off the coast of the western Philippine province of Palawan and the hotly contested areas of the Spratly group of islands.

Recognizing the strategic significance of the disputed feature, which falls within China’s expansive nine-dash line area of claim to the sea,  the Philippine military grounded a rusty hospital ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, over the shoal in 1999, thus creating a de facto military base.

The shoal lies just 168 kilometers away from the nearest Philippine shores, but as much as 965 kilometers from the nearest Chinese island of Hainan.

The small contingent of Filipino marines perched over the shoal have had to rely on constant resupply of basic needs, from food to fuel and drinking water, in order to assert Philippine claims over the area.

Philippine Marines are pictured on the BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated Philippine Navy ship that has been aground since 1999 and became a Philippine military detachment on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea. Photo: Agencies

The last time there was a major showdown between China and the Philippines over the shoal was in mid-2013, when a flotilla of Chinese vessels, including a naval frigate, laid siege on the Philippine Marines in the area.

The de facto siege came to an end when the Philippine military, in order to prevent starvation of its troops and a forced evacuation of its personnel from the area, resorted to air-dropping supplies. It also sought help from the US, which conducted naval and drone missions in the area to ward off the Chinese harassment.

When President Duterte came to power a few years later, he promised to de-escalate tensions in the area by promoting economic cooperation over confrontational diplomacy.

Yet the Filipino president’s avowedly China-friendly diplomacy has singularly failed to produce any breakthrough on the ground, as this week’s tensions have underscored. If anything, Duterte’s acquiescence seems to have emboldened further Chinese assertiveness in the area.

Last month, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) complained about Chinese vessels harassing its patrols and fishing activities in the area with over 200 radio challenges as well as the sounding of sirens and blaring of horns.

Manila has also raised concerns over harassment of its fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal, another feature within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which was seized by Chinse vessels following a months-long naval standoff back in 2012.

Over the past five years, the Philippine DFA has filed at least 160 other protests against Chinese incursions into the Southeast Asian nation’s claimed waters. The vast majority (143) of those protests were filed under Duterte’s third foreign secretary, a more traditionally-minded diplomat and veteran journalist, who was appointed in 2018 and has since risen to prominence through his colorful and often undiplomatic language over Twitter.  

Locsin condemned China’s latest “provocative acts [which] threaten the peace, good order, and security of the South China Sea,” while maintaining that the Philippines’ patrols and resupply missions in the South China Sea are “legitimate, customary, and routine.”

Philippines’ Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr has recently let his true feelings about China be known over social media. Photo: AFP / Lillian Suwanrumpha

Expressing Manila’s “outrage, condemnation and protest” over the incident, he reiterated that the Second Thomas Shoal is “an integral part of the Philippines, as well as the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, and over which the Philippines has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.”

Not shy of employing tough language, the Philippine diplomatic chief went so far as to remind Beijing “that a public vessel is covered by the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty.”

This was a particularly poignant statement since both the Trump and Biden administrations have made it clear that “[a]ny armed attack on any Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea” by a hostile third party “will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty.”

In another sign of the shifting mood in the Philippines, Duterte’s acting spokesman Karlo Nograles also adopted tough language by stating, “We will continue to assert our sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over our territory.”

On the other side, China is also digging in. “On the evening of November 16, two Philippine supply boats trespassed into waters near Ren’ai Jiao of China’s Nansha Qundao without China’s consent. Chinese coast guard vessels performed official duties in accordance with law and upheld China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime order,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in a briefing. Zhao said that both sides are “in communication on this.”

A major area of concern for the Philippines is the expanding and increasingly prolonged presence of Chinese militia vessels in disputed sea areas.

Earlier this year, the Philippines scrambled fighter jets and deployed naval and coast guard vessels to the Whitsun Reef in the Spratlys, which falls within the Philippines’ EEZ, amid a weeks-long standoff with Chinese militia vessels.

Back in 2019, a suspected Chinese militia vessel rammed into and sank a Filipino fishing boat in the energy-rich Reed Bank area, which also falls within the Philippines’ EEZ.

In recent years, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (AMTI-CSIS), which tracks the evolution of the South China Sea disputes in detail via satellite imagery analysis, has warned of the growing role of Chinese militia vessels.

A fleet of Chinese ships that sparked a diplomatic row after parking at a reef off the Philippines for several weeks. Photo: AFP / National Task Force-West Philippine Sea

“Over the course of the 2000s, the militia shifted its focus toward surveilling and harassing foreign military activity to which Beijing objected,” the AMTI said in a recent report, emphasizing the growing professionalization of the Chinese maritime militia (MMFV) and Spratlys backbone fleet (SBFV) as an extension of Beijing’s naval might in the area.

“The value of the militia is because it has a degree of deniability,” AMTI director Greg Poling told the media. “Beijing can just claim that these are commercial actors. But remote sensing and photographic evidence can be combined to distinguish militia vessels from non-militia,” he added.

For many experts and diplomats, the Philippines is paying a price for its overfriendly policy towards China, which has further expanded its military and militia presence across the South China Sea and deep into Philippine waters.

“While the Philippine response protesting China’s action is commendable by itself, it is nonetheless disheartening to note that this aggression may be traced back to the wrong Philippine policy,” former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, who oversaw the Philippines’ historic arbitration case against China under the Aquino administration, said in a statement.

“We focused principally on bilateral diplomacy while neglecting the other tools in our toolbox, which would have enabled us to move the tribunal’s ruling to the next level,” said the former Philippine top diplomat, who has openly criticized Duterte’s refusal to stand up to China and assert the country’s rights and sovereignty.