The Philippines and Vietnam on Thursday separately denounced Beijing’s decision to stage naval exercises this week in contested waters of the South China Sea, saying this could deepen international tensions in the strategic waterway.
China’s launching on Wednesday of five days of drills in waters around the Paracel Islands was “highly provocative,” Philippine Defense Secretary Lorenzana said, as he noted rising tensions stemming from Beijing’s perceived aggressiveness in the sea region.
In Hanoi, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had lodged a diplomatic note with Beijing to complain about the drills that “seriously violate Vietnam’s sovereignty.”
The maneuvers began on Wednesday and were expected to run until Sunday. Other ship traffic was to be prohibited in the affected waters, according to Chinese state-run media and a June 27 announcement by the Maritime Safety Administration of Hainan province.
Although the Philippines has no official territorial claim in the Paracel chain, Lorenzana said the exercises would trigger “alarm bells” for all the claimants in the South China Sea, which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.
“Well, that is very concerning. We view that with alarm,” Lorenzana told an online forum on Thursday organized by the National Defense College of the Philippines, where reporters were invited to participate.
“The Chinese can do theirs in their own territorial waters within their exclusive economic zone,” Lorenzana said, referring to naval exercises. “But if you do it here in contested areas, as I said earlier, then that’s highly provocative.”
China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim the Paracel Islands. The Philippines, for its part, claims Macclesfield Bank, which lies east of the Paracels, but which China considers part of that chain. Beijing has also included the bank as part of its administrative district named after the Paracels.
“China’s drills around the Paracel Archipelago seriously violate Vietnam’s sovereignty,” the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement issued Thursday.
The action by Beijing was also detrimental to the relationship between China and ASEAN in their efforts to negotiate a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, as well as “maintain peace, stability and cooperation” in the maritime region, the ministry said.
There was no immediate response from China’s government or state-run media to Thursday’s criticism by the Philippines and Vietnam.
Elsewhere in the sea region China, Taiwan and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei – have competing claims to the Spratly Islands, where Beijing has constructed artificial islands and installed military outposts on atolls.
“Amid the [COVID-19] pandemic, the tension in the West Philippine Sea continues,” the Philippine defense chief said. “Four years after the Hague ruling that favored the Philippines, the South China Sea region remains … a contested geopolitical space and a potential flashpoint.”
Lorenzana was referring to a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that went in Manila’s favor. President Rodrigo Duterte has never enforced that ruling, and instead has sought closer bilateral ties with China, while distancing the country from the Philippines’ traditional ally, the United States.
The Duterte administration, however, lately has been voicing its displeasure with Chinese actions in the South China Sea, and has sided with other claimant states including Vietnam. Last year, a Chinese ship sank a Filipino boat in contested waters, leaving 22 Filipino crew members floating at sea until they were rescued by a passing Vietnamese boat.
More recently, Manila protested China’s creation of two districts in the sea region and the designation of Kagitingan Reef within an administrative region it calls Nansha district.
“China is the most assertive and aggressive among the claimant states,” Lorenzana said.
“Recently, there has been a slight increase in the occurrence of incursions and harassment perpetrated by Chinese vessels – both military and civilian – against the Philippine Navy, Philippine Air Force, Philippine Coast Guard and Filipino fishermen,” he said.
Between August 2019 and early 2020, there had been nearly 20 incidents of harassment in the sea region that involved Chinese military ships, commercial boats and maritime militia, Lorenzana said.
“Weighing these events, the Philippine government believes that matters of sovereignty can be prudently solved, or best resolved in peaceful and diplomatic channels,” he said.
During an online meeting of ASEAN leaders hosted by Hanoi last week, both the Philippines and Vietnam were vocal about recent Chinese activities in the South China Sea.
“Even as our region struggles to contain COVID-19, alarming incidents in the South China Sea occurred,” Duterte said during his speech before ASEAN counterparts on June 26. “We call on parties to refrain from escalating tensions and abide by responsibilities under international law.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.