From the Newsrooms: December 11 to 16, 2023

China uses water cannons against PH vessels; Civilian convoy turns around from WPS mission due to China’s shadowing

BEIJING’S RISING belligerence in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) has dampened the mood of seasonal merry-making, especially for the Filipino troops stationed in the area and the fisherfolk who have borne the brunt of China’s aggression. Media reports have quoted a security expert describing the shadowing of the country’s re-supply missions along with the swarming of Chinese militia boats in Philippine waters as a “calculated show of force,” of China’s actions in “invasion” mode. 

Media reports followed the acts of aggression, including the use of water cannons against Philippine vessels, prompting the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to summon Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian on December 11. Reports quoted DFA spokesperson Maria Teresita Daza, who briefed the media saying Xilian was read the official request for Beijing to direct its vessels to “’cease and desist’ from illegal actions.” Coverage of the occasion also publicized the Chinese official’s expressed protest over Philippine “infringement” on China’s territory. 

In the most dramatic of political reactions, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri urged the president to send the Chinese ambassador home to protest the attacks by Chinese vessels. 

A string of attacks

Media’s weekend reports on December 9 and 10 tracked supply missions ready to sail to different outposts. On December 10, Atin Ito, a coalition of civilian society organizations sailed from the San Fernando port of El Nido, but after 14 hours was forced to turn back by foreign vessels. Emman Hizon, co-convenor of the coalition, told CNN Philippines on December 10 said they were shadowed by four Chinese vessels, which also attempted to cut in between the mother ship (T/S Kapitan Felix Oca) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel that escorted them.

Taking a different route, a smaller boat with the convoy was able to reach Lawak Island on Monday, December 11. 

While disappointed with the shortened trip, the organizers told reporters who joined the aborted mission that they understood the wisdom of the captain’s decision. Determined to push through with their plans, Rafaela David, the head of Atin Ito, told that the challenge has helped them to prepare better for future missions in 2024.  

The civilian convoy was lucky to have left the area unscathed. Other resupply missions were not so fortunate. On December 9, China Coast Guard (CCG) used water cannons against three vessels of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) delivering food and gasoline to fishers in Panatag Shoal. In his report for 24 Oras last December 11, Jun Veneracion said the BFAR also discovered that China reinstalled the floating barrier in Panatag that the PCG removed in September.

The December 10 resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal was similarly targeted, with two Philippine vessels sustaining significant damage due to the water cannons.

Officials react

Media reports cited statements by ambassadors of the United States, European Union, Japan, Canada, Australia, Germany and France which were issued immediately on social media after the attacks were reported. Statements expressed the general consensus of the diplomatic community that China’s actions endangered lives and livelihoods, and that the 2016 arbitration ruling must be upheld.

Senator JV Ejercito joined Zubiri to call for Huang’s repatriation and replacement. Ejercito added that the envoy be declared “persona non grata.” But DFA’s Daza told reporters in a December 11 briefing that these actions need “serious consideration.”

Meanwhile, General Romeo Brawner, Jr., chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said in an interview on December 14 that he had previously talked with Huang to ask Chinese vessels to stop blocking supply missions. Brawner said the envoy insisted that China was asserting its own sovereignty and that it was the Philippines acting with provocation. So far, China has been undeterred, ignoring the country’s claims to sovereignty and dismissing the diplomatic attempts to hold back its aggression. 

On December 14 and 15, Frontline Pilipinas, The Manila Times, Philippine Daily Inquirer and CNN Philippines reported that after the water cannon incident, 38 CCG vessels and the Chinese Maritime Militia swarmed Ayungin Shoal for 24 hours. Ray Powell of the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation was cited in the reports saying the move was “rare” and “unprecedented” and was meant to be a “show of force” by Beijing.

Other options

In a statement issued on social media and picked up by newsrooms on December 10, President Marcos said the recent attacks only “steeled our determination to defend and protect our nation’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea.” The statement failed to specify how the president would pursue these objectives, given China’s steadfast stance about its claims over the territory.

Media reported the suggestion made by Senator Ronald dela Rosa that the Philippines also use water cannons against China, and the response of Commodore Jay Tarriela, PCG Spokesperson, that the government “maintains its moral high ground” and won’t stoop down to China’s level. Coverage did not include reference to the 1987 Constitution which “renounces war as an instrument of national policy.”

In interviews with GMA Integrated News and The Manila Times, Prof. Jay Batongbacal, a maritime law expert, presented other options on the part of the national community, including the cancellation of China’s business operations in the country, such as Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs) and planned joint explorations for oil. Batongbacal and Emmanuel Leyco, an economist cited by BusinessWorld, agreed that the Philippines would be at a disadvantage should it decide to impose trade sanctions on China. Both said that the country needs to develop greater independence in the development of its export potential. 

Leyco noted that at this time, the Philippines is not a big enough economic player for its trade to have a significant impact on China. 

Unfortunately, no other media carried this broader context. News coverage has also failed to include the impact of Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China and the accommodations extended to Beijing and to Chinese citizens entering the country during his presidency. 

Retired Justice Antonio Carpio said in an ANC interview that oil exploration in Recto Bank would be the “litmus test” for Marcos in upholding his promise to defend Philippine sovereignty. Carpio said Malaysia and Indonesia have successfully conducted their respective oil explorations within their exclusive economic zones, despite the constant threat of Chinese vessels. Carpio stressed that the Malampaya gas field will run out soon, making it all the more imperative for the Philippines to secure new sources for its energy needs. 

As Chinese forces have become relentless in the use of crude harassment, media have prudently left military views largely unreported. On December 15, however, Malaya cited Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, commander of the AFP Western Command, saying the attacks would only escalate. Carlos refused to share operational details but gave his assurance that the military have prepared “for everything.” 

Buried in the same report was reference to the December 13 telephone conference among the national security advisers of the Philippines, Japan and the United States, in which official counterparts reaffirmed their commitment to peace, stability and freedom of navigation not only in the South China Sea but also in the East China Sea. Malaya wrote in another section the call between the defense secretaries of the Philippines and the United States, who also discussed efforts to uphold bilateral activities and commitments.

Philippine media have so far focused on the what national officials have to say, dealing with the tension over WPS as though it were essentially a domestic concern. News must involve the larger international context that involves the ASEAN and key international partners. Journalists in the Philippines need to become familiar with this background. Newsrooms must work to piece together what the international community have to say on the issue and the flashpoints that could heat up in these troubled waters.