On Monday, a Philippine Coast Guard spokesman told CNN that the service would begin joint exercises with its Chinese counterparts as early as August. The announcement stands in stark contrast to past confrontations between Philippine-flagged vessels and Chinese Coast Guard ships in the South China Sea.
"By August or September, a ship from Guangdong, China, the Coast Guard headquarters in China, will be going to the Philippines," said spokesman Lt. Cdr. Armando Balilo. "On the way back to their home port, we'll be sending two ships. Along the way, [there will be exercises] so it might be search and rescue, law enforcement, or environmental exercises." In addition, the Philippines Coast Guard will be sending about 20 officers to China for law enforcement trainings.
Balilo added that the two nations have reached agreements on SAR responsibilities and protocols on handling maritime crime, based on the guidelines laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Chinese claims could spread to the east
To date, maritime tensions between China and the Philippines have centered on Chinese claims in the South China Sea, which include land features and waters that are also claimed by Manila. Last year, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague found that China’s sweeping “nine dash line” maritime boundary is not justified under UNCLOS, but China has denounced the ruling as little more than a “piece of paper.” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has downplayed the court’s decision and has worked to improve diplomatic relations with China instead.
But in a new development, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenza recently alleged that a Chinese survey ship lingered for months over Benham Rise, a volcanic uplift in the Western Pacific that is part of the Philippines' outer continental shelf. The new survey activity raises concerns that China might claim parts of the Philippines' eastern waters as well.
President Duterte said Monday that there was not much he could do to stand up to China, but he called for more patrols and the construction of "structures" at the rise to demonstrate Philippine ownership. He directed the military to "tell [China] straight it's ours and say it in friendship."
At a news conference on Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang acknowledged the Philippines’ claim to Benham Rise. However, Geng did little to counter the perception that China may have an interest in the area: he said that just because the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf has ruled that the rise belongs to the Philippines, “it does not mean that the Philippines can take it as its own territory.”
Geng asserted that the survey vessel was exercising its right to freedom of navigation, and said that “the remarks by some individuals from the Philippines are not consistent with the facts."
Philippine divers reach Benham Rise for the first time, 2014