China says relations with Philippines at ‘crossroads’ amid maritime incidents

Ayungin Shoal encounter
Chinese Coast Guard vessels fire water cannons towards a Philippine resupply vessel Unaizah May 4 on its way to a resupply mission at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, March 5, 2024. (Reuters/Adrian Portugal)
  • Tensions over disputed features in Philippines EEZ
  • Philippines has lodged protest in Beijing
  • China says it took necessary measures
  • US has condemned ‘dangerous’ Chinese actions in area

MANILA — China warned the Philippines on Monday to behave cautiously and seek dialogue, saying their relations were at a “crossroads” as new confrontations between their coastguards over maritime claims deepened tensions.

It was the second such warning by the Chinese foreign ministry in three months as the two countries openly sparred over territorial claims in the Spratly Islands, a mostly uninhabited archipelago in the South China Sea.

The message was delivered by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong during a phone call with Philippine counterpart Theresa Lazaro amid worsening friction over altercations at the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.

In the call, Lazaro relayed Manila’s “strongest protest against the aggressive actions” by the China Coast Guard and maritime militia against a Philippines’ resupply mission in the South China Sea, her ministry said in a statement.

Chen said in a statement: “China once again urges the Philippines to honor its commitments and consensus, stop its maritime abuses and provocations, stop any unilateral actions that may complicate the situation, and earnestly return to the right track of properly handling differences through dialogue and consultation with China.”

The Philippines accused China’s coastguard of using water cannon against a civilian boat supplying troops on Saturday at the Second Thomas Shoal, which it said had damaged the boat and injured some crew.

It was the latest in a series of flare-ups in the past year.

The Philippines foreign ministry summoned China’s charge d’affaires in Manila on Monday to protest at “aggressive actions” in the wake of the incident.

“China’s continued interference with the Philippines’ routine and lawful activities in its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is unacceptable,” it said in a separate statement, adding that a diplomatic protest had been lodged in Beijing.

“It infringes upon the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction,” it said, demanding Chinese vessels quit the area.

China’s coastguard said on Saturday it had taken necessary measures against Philippine vessels intruding in its waters.

Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea as its own, including the Second Thomas Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ 200-mile (320-km) EEZ.

The Philippines intentionally grounded an old warship at the shoal in 1999 as a means of bolstering its territorial claims and has kept a small contingent of military there ever since.

China’s foreign ministry said on Monday the Philippines had reneged on a promise to tow away the ship, “violating the commitments it has made to the Chinese side on many occasions”.

The Philippines has repeatedly denied making any such commitment and said it will not abandon its position at the Second Thomas Shoal.

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China has deployed hundreds of coastguard vessels throughout the South China Sea to patrol what it deems its waters, despite a 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in a case brought by Manila that said the claim had no basis under international law. China has refused to recognize that outcome.

Philippine security chiefs convened a high-level meeting on Monday over the reported water cannon incident to prepare recommendations to put to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr on ways forward in the dispute.

China suspicious of US-Philippines engagement 

Since taking power in 2022, Marcos has adopted a tough line against what he sees as Chinese hostility and rejected Chinese pressure to steer clear of maritime features it claims.

China views with suspicion efforts by Marcos to deepen engagement with defense treaty ally the United States, including increasing base access for U.S. troops and expanding military exercises to include joint air and sea patrols.

Washington has said it stands with the Philippines as it condemned the “dangerous actions” of China. Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Canada and Australia have also issued statements of support for the Philippines.

“The U.S. is not a party to the South China Sea issue but repeatedly intervened, provoked the maritime issues between China and the Philippines,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian told a press conference on Monday.

Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro suggested on Monday that China should prove the strength of its maritime claims through arbitration, rather than ambiguity.

“If China is not afraid to state its claims to the world, then why don’t we arbitrate under international law?” Philippines’ Teodoro told reporters. “No country believes (their claims) and they see this as their way to use force, intimidate and bend the Philippines to their ambitions.”

— Reporting by Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales; Additional reporting by Liz Lee in Beijing; Editing by Martin Petty, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Mark Heinrich