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The Country Standing Up to Beijing in the South China Sea

The Philippines has vowed to continue removing barriers left by Chinese coast guard ships in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as the Southeast Asian country shows stronger resolve in its disputes with the world’s second-largest economy.

The Philippine Coast Guard said on Sunday that its personnel had found a floating barrier about 1,000 feet in length blocking Philippine fishing boats from entering Scarborough Shoal. Coast guard officials said the following day that they had removed the barrier on Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s orders.

Scarborough Shoal, which sits about 120 miles west of the populous Philippine island of Luzon, lies within the Philippines’ EEZ, which extends up to 200 nautical miles from the coast, according to international law. But the maritime territory has been under Chinese control ever since a naval standoff in 2012—a hot, but not the only, dispute between the two nations.

In addition to complaints about restricted access to traditional fishing waters, Manila has blamed Chinese vessels for widespread damage to coral while operating illegally in the Philippines’ fishing grounds. Marcos’ government is considering taking further legal action against Beijing, including at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra said last week, although China ignored the court’s first ruling in favor of the Philippines in 2016.

Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, chief of the Philippines’ Western Command, told reporters on Wednesday that he was worried China might set up a floating barrier at Second Thomas Shoal, another contested feature that has become a recent flashpoint. Chinese coast guard vessels recently fired water cannons and blocked Philippine boats from resupplying a small group of Philippine marines stationed at an outpost—a deliberately grounded warship that is still in service with its navy—which is situated in the Spratly Islands.

Carlos said any additional Chinese barriers would meet the same fate. “Whatever they install, we will remove,” he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said during a regular press conference on Tuesday that China‘s “resolve in safeguarding its sovereignty and maritime rights and interests” at Scarborough Shoal remained unwavering. He said Manila should not “make provocation or stir up trouble.”

China claims “historic rights” to much of the South China Sea, an assertion contested by neighboring Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. After The Hague’s arbitral court ruled overwhelmingly in Manila’s favor in Philippines v. China, stating that Beijing’s unilaterally imposed “nine-dash-line” and land reclamation activities were invalid, the Chinese government dismissed the ruling and has continued operating as it pleases in the region.

But Marcos’s administration has taken a different tone in its dealings with China than that of his predecessor, former President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte’s criticism of China was muted as he sought to score economic victories from the bilateral relationship. During his term, relations cooled with the United States, with which it has shared a mutual defense treaty for seven decades.

Marcos made headlines earlier this year when he announced additional access for American troops at four locations. In April, U.S. and Philippine forces conducted their largest-ever joint military drills near the South China Sea.

Last month, the U.S. State Department condemned China’s conduct around Second Thomas Shoal and repeated its pledge that “an armed attack on Philippine public vessels, aircraft and armed forces would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments.”

The Manila’s pivot toward its long-time Western ally may be driven primarily by the security threats posed by Beijing, but it is not the only South China Sea claimant to hedge against China by turning to America.

Vietnam, which shares overlapping claims in the Paracel Islands, also has reported harassment including water canon attacks on its fishing boats. Earlier this month, Hanoi’s ruling Communist Party concluded a historic upgrade of ties with Washington by declaring a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” among the highest of Vietnam’s diplomatic levels, in a move to counter China.

Source : Newsweek