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Philippines protests China use of military grade laser vs. Coast Guard vessel

The Philippines on Tuesday protested China’s use of military-grade laser, including dangerous maneuvers, against a Coast Guard vessel while on a resupply mission for Filipino troops stationed in Ayungin Shoal.

In a protest lodged by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Manila called out China’s Coast Guard for its “latest aggressive activities” against Philippine vessels, heightening tensions anew between the two Asian neighbors locked in yearslong territorial disputes in the resource-rich waters.  

“The diplomatic protest, released to the Chinese Embassy in Manila on 14 February 2023, condemned the shadowing, harassment, dangerous maneuvers, directing of military-grade laser, and illegal radio challenges by CCG vessel 5205 against PCG vessel BRP Malapascua on 6 February 2023,” a DFA statement said.

Actions of the Chinese Coast Guard against the Philippine vessel “constituted a threat” to the country’s “sovereignty and security as a state, and are infringements of its sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its exclusive economic zone,” the DFA said.

“The Philippines has the prerogative to conduct legitimate activities within its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. China does not have law enforcement rights or powers in and around Ayungin Shoal or any part of the Philippine EEZ,” said DFA spokesperson Ma. Teresita Daza.

Calling China’s action “provocative and unsafe,” the United States declared support for the Philippines, a long-time defense ally, against harassment, reiterating that “an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft, including those of the Coast Guard in the South China Sea, would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.”

A 1951 defense pact between Manila and Washington binds the two allies to come to each other’s aid from aggression and help defend the other party.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the US “stands with our Philippine allies” in the face of China’s latest aggressive act.

The Philippine Coast Guard said a Chinese ship pointed a “military-grade” laser light at one of its vessels supporting a Philippine Navy rotation and resupply mission on Feb. 6.

A Philippine Naval vessel – the BRP Sierra Madre – has been grounded at Ayungin shoal since 1999. 

It is 105.77 nautical miles from the nearest Philippine province of Palawan and constitutes part of the country’s 200-nautical mile continental shelf as provided under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

‘Intruding without Chinese permission’

China insists that the shoal, which it calls Ren'ai Reef, is part of China's Nansha Islands or what the Philippines refers to as Spratly Islands.

Defending its coast guard's action, Beijing accused the Philippine Coast Guard vessel of intruding into the waters off the Ren'ai Reef “without Chinese permission.” China virtually claims the South China Sea nearly in its entirety.

Citing domestic law and international law, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the CCG just upheld China’s sovereignty and maritime order as well as acted in a “professional” and “restrained” way.

“We hope the Philippine side will respect China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea and avoid taking any actions that may exacerbate disputes and complicate the situation,” he said.

But Daza said, “These acts of aggression by China are disturbing and disappointing as it closely follows the state visit to China of President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. in early January during which he and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to manage maritime differences through diplomacy and dialogue, without resorting to force and intimidation.” 

The Philippine government said China’s CCG 5205 interfered with the Philippine Coast Guard mission, directing a military-grade laser that caused temporary blindness to Filipino crew members aboard BRP Malapascua.

Officials said the Chinese vessel then undertook dangerous maneuvers by approaching at a close distance from BRP Malapascua, risking a collision that endangered the Philippine crew. The Chinese vessel, they added, issued illegal radio challenges that demanded that the Philippine vessel leave the area.

“We call on China to comply with its obligations under international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS and the 2016 Award in the South China Sea Arbitration and direct its vessels to cease and desist from its aggressive activities against Philippine vessels,” said Daza.

China’s move an ‘armed attack’

Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said China's move can be considered an "armed attack" as the laser caused temporary blindness and skin irritation to the PCG personnel.

In Maki Pulido's report on "24 Oras," Carpio urged Manila and Washington to issue a joint statement warning  the MDT may be invoked should there be a repeat of the incident.

"We just have to notify, I'm not in favor of invoking the treaty right now. We can just announce that the next time you do this, we will invoke the treaty and I think that's the last thing that the Chinese would want. To allow the US to intervene," he said.

PCG Commodore Jay Tarriela, for his part, said this is not the first time the CCG pointed military-grade laser to Filipino coast guard personnel.

In June 2022, a blue light was likewise pointed to the PCG that caused similar effect to the affected individuals.

“We condemn this kind of act...Ang isang importanteng napapansin ng PCG ay paggamit ng Chinese militia. Nag-iipon ipon sila doon creating swarming of this militia. They go by almost hundreds, more than 150,” said Torriela.

According to a study of Maritime Transparency Initiative, China has been beefing up its surveillance in several parts of the WPS.

From 232 days in 2020, Beijing has been surveilling Ayungin Shoal for 279 days in 2022.

Panatag Shoal was observed for 344 days from the 287 days while Pag-asa Island was put under watch for 208 days.

‘Protest vigorously’

Meanwhile, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said the Philippines must “protest vigorously” on the latest  incident involving China.

“We denounce this. We feel that  we should file very strong diplomatic protest to the embassy of China and to the Chinese Foreign Ministry,” Zubiri told reporters. “We will not tolerate this and I hope and pray that they don’t do  this next time. We urged the Chinese military and Coast Guard to refrain from doing this provocative measures and we continue to support our troops, we continue to support the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard and we thank them for the service of protecting the West Philippine Sea.”

Senate national defense committee chairperson Jinggoy Estrada and Senator JV Ejercito condemned the use of military grade laser against the PCG.

“Their act, which reportedly caused temporary blindness to the crew members is loathsome as it put them in harm’s way and jeopardized their safety. This provocative action should be stopped,” Estrada said.

Estrada likewise urged the DFA  stand firm in defending the country’s sovereign rights under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In a separate interview, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, former DFA secretary, said the government must “go to heart of the problem” and find a framework to discuss the “skirmishes” happening in the WPS.

Cayetano mentioned some provocations from different world powers and the DFA should make very clear to China that regardless of these, the two states must discuss the problems on the involved territories.

“Ang sabi ng China puwede bang hindi tayo multilateral...pero kung ganyan po ang magiging mga problema, we might be pushed to do it multilaterally na hindi gusto ng China,” Cayetano said.

For her part, Senator Risa Hontiveros slammed the recent statement of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for “lying” after it claimed that the PCG vessel intruded the waters off the Ren'ai Reef without Chinese permission.

“Maliwanag pa sa sikat ng araw na ang Ayungin Shoal ay teritoryo ng Pilipinas. Hindi yan sa Tsina. Huwag nila tawagin ng Tsinong pangalan. Ayungin is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The UNCLOS affirms this. The wider international community recognizes this. It is only China’s authoritarian government that seems to think otherwise,” she said in a statement.

The Hague ruling

In 2013, the Philippines challenged China’s legal basis for its vast claim in the South China Sea before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands. Manila won the case in a landmark award in 2016 after the tribunal invalidated Beijing’s assertions.

China has ignored and belittled the ruling, maintaining “indisputable” and “historical” claim over nearly the entire waters even as it encroaches on the territories of its smaller neighbors like the Philippines.

For years, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and China have been locked in terrirorial disputes in the South China Sea, a vital sea lane where oil and natural gas have been discovered.

China has since beefed up its reclamation activities in other disputed areas and transformed previously submerged features into artificial islands with multi-level buildings and runways. It has also installed surface-to-air missiles in these areas, triggering concerns from countries, such as the US, Japan and Australia. 

As of 2022, 195 notes verbale or diplomatic notes regarding Philippines’ protest on South China Sea issues have been sent to China. Of this figure, eight were lodged in 2023, including the protest filed Tuesday. — with Hana Bordey/RSJ, GMA Integrated News