The Philippines is to lodge a protest over the unannounced presence of two Chinese research vessels in its exclusive economic zone, one of at least three diplomatic challenges in the past several weeks amid a souring of relations.
The protest comes ahead of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s planned visit to Beijing this month, during which he has promised to raise Manila’s South China Sea international arbitration victory over Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), after having avoided confronting the thorny issue for three years.
Historically frosty bilateral relations had warmed under Duterte, but he is looking increasingly awkward in defending his controversial approach to China amid constant activity by the China Coast Guard, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy and paramilitary fishing vessels in Philippine-controlled areas of the South China Sea.
“Firing off diplomatic protest,” Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin said on Twitter yesterday.
The Philippines has previously protested the presence of more than 100 Chinese fishing vessels off Thitu Island (Jhongye Island, 中業島), a tiny island it holds near China’s militarized artificial island at the Subi Reef (Jhubi Reef, 渚碧礁).
It also protested the unannounced passage of Chinese warships within the Philippines’ 12 nautical mile (22.2km) territorial waters, which Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana yesterday said had happened on several occasions since February, most recently last month.
The latest protest centers on the lingering presence of two Chinese scientific research vessels within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
Lorenzana told ABC-CBN News Channel that like other countries conducting research or moving warships near its coastline, China should have informed the Philippines.
“We can always protest to the Chinese government. It’s telling them we know what you are doing and please tell us what you are doing there,” he said.
China’s embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Duterte late on Thursday called for a quicker creation of a code of conduct between Southeast Asian countries and China for the South China Sea, a conduit for more than US$3.4 trillion of goods each year.
Taiwan, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia have overlapping claims of sovereignty to all of parts of the South China Sea.
Citing its “nine-dash line,” China has said that it has historical jurisdiction to almost the entire sea, although the 2016 arbitral ruling declared that invalid under international law.
On Thursday, Vietnam said that a Chinese survey ship embroiled in a tense month-long standoff with Hanoi’s vessels left the Southeast Asian nation’s continental shelf.