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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Keenly watching, listening

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Eyeball-to-eyeball at the West Philippine Sea.

This is the stretched tight situation in the area after the Philippine Coast Guard deployed two of its vessels following what Manila described as an “alarming” increase in the number of Chinese maritime militia vessels at a reef within the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

The number of Chinese boats believed manned by militia personnel has increased to more than 135 from 111 in November, scattered within the boomerang-shaped Julian Felipe Reef, 320 kms from the Palawan shoreline.

“The PCG maintains its unwavering commitment to safeguarding maritime security, safety and the marine environment in the course of protecting the territorial integrity, sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea,” the PCG said in a statement.

Thus far, the Chinese Embassy in Manila has not commented on the presence of Chinese boats and the two Philippine vessels in the area.

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The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China’s claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea in 2016, but Beijing has not recognized and continues not to recognize the ruling and has instead built islands in the disputed waters in recent years, laying air strips on some of them.

Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei all claim parts of the sea.

We find the increase in the number of Chinese boats in the area rather preposterous after President Marcos and Chinese President Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Conference in California and sought ways to reduce tensions in the area and restore Filipino fishermen’s access to fishing grounds.

It’s chucklesome that while the two leaders agreed to come up with mechanisms to lower the tensions in the area, Beijing continues to increase the number of its vessels within Manila’s EEZ.

We know Mr Marcos was forthright when he said “I asked (our Chinese counterpart) that we go back to the situation where both Chinese and Filipino fishermen were fishing together in these waters.”

We had the impression the California meeting was a major gear to the process to maintain peace and keep open the sea lanes and airways over the South China Sea.

Filipino fishermen have complained that Chinese coast guard and maritime militia ships are preventing them from fishing in parts of the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Mr. Marcos had said he and Xi agreed that geopolitical problems should not define the two countries’ diplomatic bonds forge on June 9, 1975.

The PCG’s report follows the first joint sea and air patrols for three days between the Philippines and Australia in the South China Sea, Manila took similar steps earlier with Washington as Pacific nations warily eye an increasingly assertive China.

The Philippines is ramping up efforts to counter what it describes as China’s “aggressive activities” in the South China Sea, which has also become a flashpoint for Chinese and US tensions around naval operations.

We are attentive.

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