Philippine Military: China Should "Desist and Leave" Spratly Islands

Courtesy Philippine Coast Guard

Published Apr 28, 2021 10:50 PM by The Maritime Executive

The government of the Philippines is beginning to push back on a long-running pattern of Chinese encroachment in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Following the mass deployment of Chinese maritime militia vessels to Philippine-claimed Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands in March, the Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries have launched an eight-vessel exercise near contested land features in the region - drawing criticism from Beijing. 

China claims that the overwhelming majority of the South China Sea lies within its territorial sea boundaries, including waters located hundreds of miles away from Chinese-held territory. Under UNCLOS, the limit for territorial sea claims is measured at 12 nautical miles from the coastal nation's shores.

The newly-announced Philippine Coast Guard exercises are taking place near Scarborough Shoal - a longstanding regional flash point - and Philippine-held Thitu Island. When asked about the exercises at a press conference Monday, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry implied that the PCG's maneuvers were not respectful of China's sovereignty. 

"China enjoys sovereignty over [the Spratly Islands] including [Thitu Island] and . . . [Scarborough Shoal] and their adjacent waters, and exercises jurisdiction in relevant waters," claimed Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Monday. "We urge [the Philippines] to respect China's sovereignty and rights and interests, and stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes."

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana pushed back on Wednesday, noting that China's sovereignty claims were rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague five years ago. (China did not participate in the case and does not recognize its legitimacy.)

"They [China] have no authority or legal basis to prevent us from conducting these exercises within the [Philippine EEZ]. Atin yan [It's ours]," Lorenzana said at a press conference. "Their claims according to their so-called historical rights have no basis while we have two international documents saying the area is ours: the UNCLOS of which China is a signatory, and the arbitral award of 2016 . . .  it is they who are complicating the situation by their illegal occupation of reefs which they built into artificial islands."

The Philippine Department of National Defense followed up with a stronger statement, suggesting that it is "[Chinese forces] who are encroaching and should desist and leave."