Defense chief Austin hits ‘coercive, risky’ behavior near Ayungin Shoal
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III on Thursday expressed serious concern over China’s “coercive and risky” behavior after Chinese vessels harassed Philippine boats in the Ayungin Shoal.
Austin conveyed his concern during a call to Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro on Thursday (US time).
“Secretary Austin noted with concern the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) recent coercive and risky operational behavior directed against Philippine vessels operating safely and lawfully in the South China Sea, including around Second Thomas Shoal,” a readout provided by Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said.
On Wednesday, the Philippine Coast Guard said two Chinese coast guard vessels took what it described as “dangerous maneuvers” that could have caused a collision with PCG ships assisting the resupply mission of the Armed Forces of the Philippines near Ayungin Shoal on June 30.
Ayungin is also referred to as Second Thomas Shoal.
During his conversation with Teodoro, Austin “highlighted the United States’ ironclad alliance commitment with the Philippines and reiterated that the Mutual Defense Treaty extends to Philippine public vessels, aircraft, and armed forces — to include those of its Coast Guard — in the Pacific, including anywhere in the South China Sea,” the readout said.
It added that Austin and Teodoro also reaffirmed their commitment to continue upholding the rules-based order and supporting the livelihoods of local Philippine communities in the South China Sea consistent with the Arbitral Tribunal Ruling in 2016.
“The Secretaries agreed to meet in person for in-depth discussions on defense and security priorities,” the Pentagon said.
In 2016, the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, based on a case filed by the Philippines, junked China’s nine-dash line claim covering the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea.
It was a major legal victory for the Philippines but China has refused to acknowledge the ruling.
On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin insisted that the maneuvers of their vessels during the June 30 incident were “professional and restrained.”
“In accordance with the law, the Chinese Coast Guard vessel carried out law enforcement activities to uphold China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime order. The Chinese side’s maneuvers were professional and restrained,” Wang said at a press conference.
The Chinese official asserted that the Ren’ai Reef (Ayungin Shoal) was part of China’s Nansha Islands, adding that it was the PCG vessels that supposedly intruded Chinese waters.
Earlier on Wednesday, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian paid a courtesy visit to Teodoro to discuss China and the Philippines’ defense and military relations as well as maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea.
“We had a constructive discussion on promoting defense and military relations between China and the Philippines, and maintaining peace and stability in the region,” Huang said of his meeting with Teodoro.
On Friday, US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson called out China’s “irresponsible behavior in the South China Sea,” saying it “threatens the security and legal rights” of one of the US allies, the Philippines.
In a statement, Carlson also called on China to comply with international law, including the legally binding 2016 Arbitration Award that turned in favor of the Philippines.
She said it is “a starting point to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific,” which many countries are pushing for.
Within the past three years, Manila filed a total of 427 diplomatic protests against Beijing, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) figures showed.
Meanwhile, the Western Command (WESCOM) reported 48 Chinese fishing vessels have been spotted swarming the Iroquois Reef, which is located south of the oil and gas-rich Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea.
The WESCOM, in a Facebook post on Friday, said this was based on information from their air patrol on June 30.
“During multiple flights over Iroquois Reef in the past week, pilots aboard NV-312, a Britten Norman Islander light patrol aircraft of the Philippine Navy, observed an alarming presence of Chinese fishing vessels,” it said.
It noted that the presence of these vessels is visible from the air, based on the reports of the pilots of the patrol aircraft.
The Chinese vessels “were observed to be anchored in groups of five to seven, and no fishing activities were noticed,” WESCOM said. “They seem to just loiter in the area.”
These recent observations by the Britten Norman Islander patrol aircraft confirm earlier intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights conducted in the area, which indicated an increasing trend of Chinese fishing vessels.
In February, WESCOM reported the sighting of only 12 Chinese fishing vessels compared to the 47 spotted on June 12.
“Simultaneously with this surge at Iroquois Reef, an increased presence of Chinese maritime assets has also been noted at Sabina Shoal. Three China Coast Guard ships and two People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) vessels are regularly loitering there compared to two wooden resupply boats from the Philippines and two Philippine Coast Guard vessels,” it said.
“These developments raise an alarming concern about China’s intentions and actions within these disputed waters.“ it added.
Recto Bank, a significant feature for the Philippines holding immense potential for the country’s energy security and economic growth, “stands as a focal point in this rising concern over China’s recent behavior,” it added.
“Recto Bank is a vital feature within the Philippine’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and China must cease its swarming of vessels to respect our sovereign rights,” WESCOM spokesperson Navy Commander Ariel Coloma said in an earlier statement.
Also on Friday, Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson CG Commodore Jay Tarriela said his earlier comments during his interview in ANC were taken out of context and “misinterpreted” by the media.
“I would like to clarify that in my ANC interview yesterday, I wanted to emphasize that our efforts to expose China’s aggressive actions in recent months have resulted in some changes in the behavior of the Chinese Coast Guard, particularly in terms of how they shadow our PCG vessels,” Tarriela said in his tweet.
“However, I made it clear that their behavior is still concerning when it comes to Ayungin Shoal. Unfortunately, my statements were misinterpreted and taken out of context,” he added.
Tarriela said the Chinese ships used to shadow Philippine vessels by sailing alongside them but were not following behind because they were worried they would be caught on camera engaging in aggressive behavior.
Also on Friday, Senator Risa Hontiveros said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Wenbin should stop with the lies, gaslighting, and propaganda.
If China wants to be a responsible member of the community of nations, she said Wang should inform his government to genuinely abide by international law and leave Philippine territory.
Hontiveros slammed Wenbin for his statements, which are not helping his country on the world stage by insisting on these sweeping and baseless claims.
“The commotion happened on Ayungin Shoal; not Renai Reef, not Nansha islands, and certainly not Chinese territory,” she said.
She said PCG vessels were on a routine resupply mission in Philippine waters, but Chinese vessels illegally maneuvered to interdict them. “This is the truth,” she said.
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