The European Union (EU) on Saturday opposed any unilateral actions in the South China Sea (SCS) as it cited the recent swarming of Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef, an area located within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The bloc, through a statement by EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy Nabila Massrali, said tensions in the South China Sea, including the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe Reef, also called the Whitsun Reef, “endanger peace and stability in the region.”
“The EU reiterates its strong opposition to any unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability and the international rules-based order. We urge all parties to resolve disputes through peaceful means in accordance with international law, in particular UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), including its dispute settlement mechanisms,” it said in a statement.
It also renewed its recognition of the landmark 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration award in favor of the Philippines, which invalidated Beijing’s expansive claim called the nine-dash line on the South China Sea.
“The EU is committed to secure, free and open maritime supply routes in the Indo-Pacific, in full compliance with international law, in particular the UNCLOS, in the interest of all,” it said.
The bloc said it also looks forward to a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and asked all parties to produce a document that does not prejudice the rights of other states outside the region.
“The EU supports the ASEAN-led process towards an effective, substantive and legally binding Code of Conduct, which should not prejudice the interests of third parties. The EU urges all parties to pursue sincere efforts towards its finalization,” it said.
Apart from the European Union, the Philippines’ long-time ally, the United States, along with countries such as Japan, Australia, United Kingdom, and New Zealand have called on China to leave and cease raising tensions in the area by pulling out of the West Philippine Sea.
A maritime law expert also said Saturday the Philippine government must sustain its diplomatic protests against China over the latter’s illegal presence in Philippine waters through continuing maritime patrols.
“We should continue issuing protests until the Philippines is satisfied and the protests achieve their purpose,” said Prof. Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
But despite repeated calls and protests from the Philippines, Chinese militia vessels continue to linger in the area and have even been spotted in other parts of the Kalayaan Island Group in the municipality of Kalayaan, Palawan off the country’s northwestern waters.
“The continued swarming and threatening presence of the Chinese vessels creates an atmosphere of instability and is a blatant disregard of the commitments by China to promote peace and stability in the region,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said as it filed two new diplomatic protests against China over the presence of 160 Chinese vessels in some features and islands in the country’s EEZ.
In a diplomatic note dated April 21, 2021, the DFA said the presence of these vessels in the West Philippine Sea “blatantly infringe[s] upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.”
“The vessels were observed within the territorial sea of high tide features in the Kalayaan Island Group, in the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and in and around the territorial waters of Bajo de Masinloc,” the department said.
The DFA cited five Chinese Coast Guard vessels with bow numbers 3103, 3301, 3305, 5101, and 5203 that were sighted within the vicinities of Pag-asa Island, Bajo de Masinloc and Ayungin Shoal.
“Through these protests, the DFA reminded China that Bajo de Masinloc, Pag-asa Islands, Panata, Parola, Kota Islands, Chigua and Burgos Reefs are integral parts of the Philippines over which it has sovereignty and jurisdiction. The Philippines exercises sovereign rights and jurisdiction over Julian Felipe Reef and Ayungin Shoal,” the DFA told China.
Manila’s discovery of the boats deepens a decline in Sino-Philippine goodwill that peaked after Duterte took office five years ago, analysts including Batongbacal told Voice of America’s online news site in a recent interview.
The Chinese vessels are “definitely having an impact,” said Batongbacal.
“For sure many in government, even among many Duterte supporters, are not as enamored with China because of this,” he said.
The flotilla reminds many Filipinos of 2012, when Chinese vessels occupied Scarborough Reef, a fishery in the contested South China Sea, sparking a lengthy standoff, Batongbacal said.
Officials in Beijing are bristling too. They resent the United States for helping the Philippines militarily, said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor from the University of New South Wales in Australia.
Duterte still allows annual Philippines-US military exercises, despite talk years ago of ending them, and last year his government deferred plans to cancel a visiting forces agreement with the US military, Thayer noted to VOA.
The United States periodically sends warships and aircraft to the sea as support for pro-US governments such as Taiwan and the Philippines. China intends its 220-boat flotilla to challenge the US-Philippines military connection, Thayer said.
Within the Philippine navy alone now, “people express views at odds with Duterte, on China,” said Thayer, who has attended conferences with navy personnel. “They’re humiliated and they’re upset.”
Sino-Philippine relations continue, however, as the Philippines needs Chinese COVID-19 vaccines and aid with post-pandemic economic recovery, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center in Washington.
China was aiming as of mid-December to send the Philippines 25 million doses of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine by this month.
“Although the relationship between China and the Philippines is rocky currently because of the 220 fishing boats, I don’t think we’re at the breaking point just yet,” Sun told Voice of America.