The Philippines accuse China of ‘swarming’ Reef of its Coast, renewing tensions over disputed sea region

The Philippines accuse China of ‘swarming’ Reef of its Coast, renewing tensions over disputed sea region
Photo Source: Personnel of the Philippine Coast Guard ship ‘BRP Malabrigo’ aboard an inflatable boat preparing to conduct a survey in the waters of Second Thomas shoal in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea, by Red Ajibe, via AFP, 23rd April 2023


Nuno Daun

Southeast Asia & Pacific Team 

Global Human Rights Defense


Since 2012, after China claimed the majority of the South China Sea (over 90% of the sea), tensions have risen between China and the Philippines, since the coastal region of the Philippines is in the South China Sea. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a convention to which China is a signatory, states that a State’s territory expands 370 km from their coastal region. However, China has claimed jurisdiction over islands that are thousands of kilometers away from their shore. Additionally, over the years, many Filipino fishing ships were sent back by the Chinese Coast Guard and not permitted to fish in the region, an area rich with sea life. In addition to the sea life, some of the reefs in the region have big petroleum reserves. Hence, the dispute over the territories.

In September of 2023, the Philippines cut-off a floating barrier that was placed by China as an attempt to reclaim their part of the sea. Furthermore, the Filipino government stated that it will continue to cut any floating barrier that China decides to place near their shore.

In 2016, after a claim from the Philippines in the dispute, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines. However, China did not comply with the ruling and proceeded to build artificial islands in territory to which they had no legal claim or jurisdiction. Setting up military outposts and deploying a maritime fleet to keep guard of their occupied territory.

Current Dispute

Since the removal of the Chinese floating barrier, the Philippines has placed five navigational buoys in the sea near their coast and have warned China not to remove them, or they would face “serious repercussions.”

In the last few weeks, the Philippines Coast Guard has stated that the number of Chinese Maritime vessels was increasing, having reportedly seen 135 vessels in the Whitsun Reef. The Philippines Coast Guard made an attempt to communicate with the vessels via radio, but achieved no response. According to the Philippines Coast Guard, the boats were scattered across the Whitsun Reef in a “boomerang shape.”

The increase of Chinese maritime military vessels could potentially be Beijing’s response to the threats made by the Philippines spokesperson. However, it must be noted that China not following the Court’s ruling and sending military vessels to a region that they have no legal claim to, is seen as a violation of international law. Moreover, the Philippines Coast Guard have alleged that one of the Chinese ships carried out “dangerous maneuvers” near a patrol ship, posing a threat to the safety of the ship and its crew. 

In response, the United States, as a member of the Security Council, has urged China to stop harassing Philippine vessels. Further warning China that any armed attacks on the Philippines, would invoke the mutual defense treaty.

The Filipino President, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has tried to establish a communication line with Beijing but was of no avail. He states that they are committed to reaching a peace agreement.

The Philippines will continue to place buoys in the sea to establish a safe passage to avoid shallow waters and have urged China not to interfere or remove the floating barriers.

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