The Philippines gradually finds its way back in asserting its rights to the disputed sea as more countries send their forces to patrol the area. 

Angelo Brian T. Castro

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Source: CNN Philippines

The month of May has been a rollercoaster ride to the watchers of the South China Sea and the disputed areas in regional maritime security. Earlier this month, the Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin posted an inflammatory tweet laden with flowerful language critiquing recent Chinese actions in the disputed waters.

A day after posting this tweet and being reprimanded by his national government, the foreign secretary issued an apology to his counterpart, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi but emphasized that the apology is for him alone. His apology does neither extend to the Chinese government nor the Chinese Ambassador in the Philippines. A week after posting such an insult-laden tweet to China, it has called out to the Philippines that the country should stop patrolling within the 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zones and further escalate the issue. The Philippine national government has received criticisms until recently on different occasions. First, with its President defining the Hague Ruling, a document is easily thrown into a garbage bin. The second was when his Spokesperson, Harry Roque claims that Whitsun Reef has never been part of the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

 Since April, the Philippine government has sortied its coastguard and Bureau of Fishery ships to undertake maritime safety, maritime security, maritime law enforcement, maritime search and rescue, and marine environmental protection roles within the West Philippine (South China) Sea. 

According to the Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s statement:

“We have a stand here, and I want to state it here and now again that our ships that are on Pag-asa (Thitu) and elsewhere… we will not move an inch backward, I do not want a quarrel, I do not want trouble. I respect your position, and you respect mine. But we will not go to war, “I will not withdraw even if you kill me. Our friendship will end here.”

Much to the displease of the Chinese government, Manila has recently announced that it would also build a logistics hub in Thitu, called Pag-asa Island, by the Philippines, the second largest island in the Spratlys group. The hub can serve as a refueling and replenishing point for Philippine naval units as the Philippine government continues its patrols around the South China Sea. Furthermore, the Philippine government has instructed the Filipino fishermen NOT to follow the summer fishing ban imposed by China since 1999 around the sea from May 1 to August 16. There are also 400 American soldiers and defense contractors currently stationed in Southern Philippines due to its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which President Duterte has previously been against and later suspended its cancellation. However, American support to the Philippines might be negatively affected if the agreement would not be renewed in two months based on a statement by a specialist on the relation between the US and the Philippines. The United States’ presence in the Southern Philippine Island (Mindanao) was under the VFA agreement; meanwhile, the US Navy in the South China Sea operates under the Mutual Defence Treaty between the Philippines and the United States. 

To determine whether the United States would receive a renewal of the VFA with the Philippines is a lingering question. If not, would the United States’ heightened support to the Philippines in the South China Sea be negatively affected as well? Based on the current tone of the Philippines, the country espouses confidence to distance itself from China based on its most recent statements, especially on how they are defying China’s call to either stop patrolling or fish during the summer season. Also, the announcement of constructing a logistics hub in Thitu could bolster the Philippines’ resupplying abilities for their ships and constant patrol in the disputed areas.