MANILA (3rd UPDATE) — The Chinese government urged Philippine authorities to "respect" their supposed sovereignty over South China Sea as Manila ramped up maritime drills and patrols in the area amid growing tensions.
In a public briefing on Monday, Beijing's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told Philippine officials to "stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes."
Wang said China has sovereignty over what it calls the Nansha Islands or the Spratlys, which includes Zhongye Island or Pag-asa Island and Zhongsha Islands that include Huangyan Island or the Scarborough Shoal.
The areas are either within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, a part of the waters the Philippines calls the West Philippine Sea, or being claimed and partly occupied by Manila based on domestic laws.
"China enjoys sovereignty over [the islands] and their adjacent waters, and exercises jurisdiction in relevant waters," Wang said when asked by a reporter what he thought of the Philippines' maritime activities.
"We urge the relevant side to respect China's sovereignty and rights and interests," he added.
A UN-backed arbitration court had in 2016 ruled that China's sweeping claims over almost the entire sea have no legal basis, but it continues to shun the ruling, instead ramping up militarization and island-building activities.
The Philippines' National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) last week announced sending more patrol vessels to the area to "sustain" sovereignty patrols there.
The deployment of additional vessels and aircraft in the area aims to intensify operations against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and to "increase safety of life at sea operations", the NTF-WPS said.
Over 200 Chinese ships have been spotted in the area since March and remained there despite Philippine demands for them to leave.
PCG, BFAR'S MARITIME DRILLS UNDERWAY
The maritime exercises of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) in the West Philippine Sea are currently underway.
In a Facebook post over the weekend, the Coast Guard said crew members of their participating vessels, as well as PCG-manned BFAR vessels “have started their intensified training on navigation, small boat operations, maintenance, and logistical operations” as part of efforts to safeguard Philippine waters.
PCG Spokesperson Commodore Armando Balilo said the maritime exercises are necessary to train both the PCG and BFAR's personnel since their mandate includes performing maritime law enforcement.
“Basically, ang exercise is para maging mahusay pa o mapaganda pa ang skills ng mga tao to perform ang aming mga mandate, like maritime law enforcement, search and rescue, environmental protection, tsaka maritime safety,” Balilo said.
(This exercise will train and improve our personnel's skills in performing our mandate on maritime law enforcement, search and rescue, environmental protection, and maritime safety.)
Balilo said the PCG's interoperability with BFAR personnel would also be tested during the drills.
The PCG will also perform maritime exercises in the Batanes Group of Islands, Benham Rise, as well as in the southern and eastern portions of the Philippines.
“Hanggang maganda ang panahon, ang order po ni [PCG commandant Admiral George Ursabia], we continue to train and hindi lang doon sa West Philippine Sea," he said.
(As long as the weather is good, Admiral Ursabia ordered us to continue training not only in the West Philippine Sea.)
"Importante kasi iyong experience sa dagat ng aming mga officers and men, lalo na ang mga estudyante, ang mga candidate Coast Guard officer."
(The personnel's experience is important, most especially to those who are still students, those who are currently candidates to become Coast Guard officers.)
WITH MARITIME DRILLS, EXPERT SAYS PH 'MEANS BUSINESS'
The exercises meant that the Philippines, this time, is serious in asserting its rights, according to Collin Koh of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
"The PCG drill in the area wouldn't come across as anything more than just a small nuisance to Beijing, and won't have any salutary effect that would change China's behavior," Koh told ABS-CBN News.
"At best, the exercise along with the ramped up Philippine presence in the Spratlys would signal to Beijing that Manila this time means business following the unprecedentedly robust response after the Whitsun Reef (Julian Felipe Reef) revelation last month," he added.
These, however, will not amount "much to a challenge" to what he described as Beijing's "effective control" of the Scarborough Shoal since 2012.
"President (Rodrigo) Duterte's diplomacy with Beijing since 2016 and incidents such as the "barter trade" forced upon Filipino fishermen in the area by Chinese coastguards, the Chinese challenge to Filipino-crewed merchant vessel Green Aura in 2019 near the shoal - all of which had been downplayed by the administration - had helped strengthen Beijing's hands over Scarborough Shoal," said Koh.
Wang's reiteration on Monday of Beijing's position on the South China Sea "is pretty standard," said Koh, who has research interests on naval affairs in the Indo-Pacific, focusing on Southeast Asia.
"This latest Chinese MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) statement is mere routine, standard boiler-plate response, and it does reflect the relative comfort Beijing believes it currently enjoys where it comes to its hold over the feature," he added.
Duterte forged friendlier relations with China since assuming power in 2016, temporarily setting aside the arbitral award on the South China Sea in favor of economic aid and investments.
The Philippines last week filed two new diplomatic protests against China over its illegal and lingering presence in Philippine waters, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
It had vowed to continuously take such action until Beijing's ships leave Philippine waters.
— With reports from Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News; Reuters