The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said on Wednesday that two Chinese coast guard vessels had “followed, harassed, and obstructed” its ships on a support mission in the disputed South China Sea on June 30.
PCG spokesman Jay Tarriela said the PCG vessels—BRP Malabrigo and BRP Malapascua—were assisting a naval operation in the Ayungin Shoal when they were approached by the Chinese vessels.
Mr. Tarriela stated on Twitter that the PCG vessels were “constantly followed” and obstructed by the Chinese ships during their mission. At one point, the Chinese vessels came within 100 yards of the PCG vessels.
At a press briefing, Mr. Tarriela said the PCG vessels had to reduce their speed to avoid colliding with the Chinese vessels. They also responded to the radio challenges posed by the Chinese coast guards.
“They are not supposed to be within our EEZ and that they were carrying out dangerous maneuvers and they are violating the [1972 Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea],” he said, referring to the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
China Sends Militia, Navy Vessels
The PCG also detected six Chinese maritime militia vessels and two Chinese naval ships sailing around the Ayungin shoal later that day.
Nevertheless, Mr. Tarriela said the PCG ships managed to complete their mission and safely returned to their respective areas of operation.
“This is particularly alarming as the Philippine Navy’s naval operation is solely humanitarian in nature. Despite this, the Chinese have deployed their warships, raising even greater concerns,” he stated on Twitter.
Ayungin Shoal, also known as the Second Thomas Shoal or Renai Reef by China, is part of the Spratly Islands, about 105 nautical miles off the Philippine province of Palawan. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) classifies maritime areas within 200 nautical miles of coastal nations’ borders as part of their EEZs.
Beijing claims much of the South China Sea as its own territory under its so-called nine-dash line. The Hague Tribunal ruled in favor of legal action taken by the Philippines in 2016. Still, the ruling did not see communist China change its behavior, with Chinese vessels repeatedly intruding into the Philippines’ maritime zones.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei have also clashed with the Chinese regime over its claims in the South China Sea.
Raymond Powell, a former U.S. Air Force official, described the South China Sea as a “hotbed of gray zone activity,” where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “can act without being directly seen, or noticed, or publicly held accountable.”
A member of the Philippine coast guard vessel BRP Malabrigo manning his post while being shadowed by a Chinese coast guard ship at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea on April 23, 2023. (Ted Ajibe/AFP via Getty Images)
“So what the Philippines has been doing with releasing photos and videos of incidents has been trying to illuminate this gray zone,” Mr. Powell, a fellow at the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, told Radio Free Asia on Tuesday.
“Our hypothesis is that if you illuminate gray zone activity, you do two things: You build resilience into your own society against that activity, so that people begin to expect and give you room to push back. And then, also, in the long-term, you hope to deter that activity because now, the gray zone actor—China—is paying a reputational cost,” he added.
The Chinese regime has been behaving more aggressively in the South China Sea in recent months, as evidenced by the presence of over 100 Chinese militia maritime vessels within the Philippines’ EEZ in April.
In February, the PCG reported that a Chinese coast guard vessel used a “military-grade laser” against its ship in the Ayungin Shoal to impede a resupply mission, temporarily blinding its crew.
The Philippines and the United States agreed in February to restart joint maritime patrols in the disputed sea, which had been suspended under former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration in 2016.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States seeks to strengthen ties with the Philippines “in every way possible” and is willing to help modernize Philippine military capabilities.
“We conduct more than 500 defense engagements together every year,” Mr. Austin told reporters on Feb. 2. “And as President [Joe] Biden has made clear, America’s commitment to the defense of the Philippines is ironclad.”
The Philippines and the United States are allies under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which dictates that the two nations will defend each other if either is attacked.