GEOPOLITICAL tensions are rising again in the South China Sea, with the Philippines accusing a China coast guard vessel of using a “weapons-grade laser” on Feb 6 to “temporarily blind” a crew member of its own coast guard on a mission to supply rations to troops at Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal in Tagalog), a submerged reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs filed a diplomatic protest with the Chinese embassy in Manila, describing the coast guard’s action as a “threat to Philippine sovereignty and security as a state”.
Spokeswoman Teresita Daza accused the Chinese of waging aggression against the Philippines and expressed the ministry’s disappointment with the action, despite a promise to the contrary by President Xi Jinping to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr in Beijing last month that they would manage their maritime disagreements through diplomacy and dialogue.
At a press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin defended the incident as consistent with domestic and international law.
The operation, including the laser beam, was conducted, according to him, “professionally and with restraint” against Philippine supply vessels, which had encroached on the area without permission.
Wang was probably referring to China’s 1992 Law on Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone.
Article 2 of the law states “PRC’s territorial sea refers to the waters adjacent to its territorial land”.
China’s territorial land includes the mainland and its offshore islands, Taiwan, and affiliated islands, including Diaoyu Island, Penghu Islands, Dongsha Islands, Xisha Islands, Nansha (Spratly) Islands and other islands that belong to China.
China’s internal waters refer to the waters along the baseline of the territorial sea facing the land.
The simple act of seeking to resupply Philippine soldiers cannot be considered a violation of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which provides the most authoritative legal framework for maintaining public order at sea.
Besides, international law prohibits the use of force.
If Manila’s account is correct, using a laser beam to harm a crew member of another state on a humanitarian mission is tantamount to intimidation.
This threat of force is reprehensible under international law.
China’s designation of territories in the disputed sea as its own has been challenged by other states in the region and elsewhere.
An international tribunal was set up in 2013, at the request of Manila, to determine the ownership and status of features in the South China Sea and to determine the legality of China’ nine-dash line maritime claim in the sea.
The tribunal rejected China’s historical claim and it also found, in 2016, that the nine-dash line is illegal under international law.
Unfortunately, China has refused to be party to the tribunal.
In view of recent events in the West Philippine Sea, Marcos is likely to revisit the tribunal ruling that his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, had set aside in an attempt to placate China, which has paid few dividends.
The Ayungin situation became messier when Washington decided to weigh in.
The United States State Department issued a statement backing Manila and describing the action of the Chinese coastguard as “provocative and unsafe.”
Ned Price, the spokesman, said the US “stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order”.
By accusing China of “threatening directly “regional peace and stability, infringing upon freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and “undermining the rules-based international order”, Price has brought the laser incident into greater focus.
In the same breath, he said an attack on the Philippine territory could invoke the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty.
Marcos has wisely played down the suggestion “to deflate further tensions” with China.
Manila-Beijing relations cooled rapidly after Marcos announced the Philippines would allow the US access to four extra locations under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, which was agreed by both parties in 2014.
The flare up also happened soon after Marcos and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida signed a memorandum of understanding that would permit the two nations’ armed forces to cooperate on disaster relief.
An authority notes that such a measure could be a stepping stone to a pact that would allow the deployment of military units on each other’s territory.
It is too early to suggest that the MoU could lead a trilateral security alliance that includes the US.
This initiative would embolden Washington, which has been putting together a coalition of military forces in the Asia Pacific to deter and contain China.
The military groupings include Australia, the United Kingdom and the US (Aukus)
Under Aukus, the US has pledged to arm Australia with eight nuclear propelled submarines at the expense of Canberra’s membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The other coalition to contain China comprises India, Japan, Australia and the US. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is a security arrangement led by the US.
Is it wise for Marcos to make a 180 degree turn against China when some of American policies toward China are receiving pushback?
For example, the US policy over Taiwan is inconsistent with the One-China policy formulated by president Richard Nixon.
The US’ unprecedented steps to limit the sale of advanced computer chips to China and banning US companies from using China’s Huawei communication technology on security grounds have backfired.
Similarly, the downing of a balloon from China has not been met with much enthusiasm worldwide.
For many, the balloon incident, which Beijing labels a farce, is a distraction from fragile domestic politics and geostrategic headwinds as the Biden administration struggles to hold on its primacy worldwide.
China-US relations are likely to take a turn for the worse if State Secretary Antony Blinken follows through with his threat against Wang Yi, China’s most senior diplomat and former foreign minister under President Xi Jinping.
Blinken told Wang at the Munich Security Conference last week that China will risk “serious consequences in bilateral relations” should it supply lethal weapons to Russia, with whom China “has a no-limit strategic partnership”.
Beijing has returned the US compliments as unwelcome pressure and a coercive policy that will not unsettle its no-limit friendship with nuclear-armed neighbour Russia.
Beijing almost certainly will just ignore the threat.
It will not be cowed by Washington, especially in the South China Sea, where Marcos is taking a big gamble with his foreign policy.