China & Philippines Pledge to "De-Escalate Tensions" in S. China Sea

Diplomats Theresa Lazaro and Chen Xiaodong shake hands after a meeting in Manila (Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Diplomats Theresa Lazaro and Chen Xiaodong shake hands after a meeting in Manila (Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Published Jul 3, 2024 9:16 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Wednesday, two top diplomats from the Philippines and China sat down for a "frank and constructive discussion on the situation in the South China Sea," two weeks after Chinese forces rammed two Philippine Navy boats and injured eight servicemembers at Second Thomas Shoal. According to a readout provided by the Philippine government, the two sides committed to "de-escalate tensions without prejudice to their respective positions." The Chinese foreign ministry released an image of the two sides' representatives shaking hands - a rare sight in recent months. 

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Theresa Lazaro met with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong for talks in downtown Manila. Lazaro said that the Philippines would be "relentless" in defending its sovereignty in its western exclusive economic zone, which is largely claimed by China under Beijing's "nine-dash line" policy. 

China's Chen Xiaodong urged the Philippine government to "stop maritime infringements and provocative actions" in the Philippine exclusive economic zone, and reiterated China's longtime claim to Philippine waters. (Beijing's sweeping maritime claims were rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in 2016, but China refuses to accept the court's ruling.)

The two sides also pledged to work on a crisis communication system between the Philippine Coast Guard and China Coast Guard, for use during the two sides' frequent encounters in the Philippine EEZ. 

The China Coast Guard assault on Philippine troops at Second Thomas Shoal, June 17 (AFP)

The tone of the talks differed from the reality of the increasingly violent skirmishes in the Spratly Islands, where Chinese forces routinely assault Philippine vessels with ramming and water-cannoning. In the last encounter at Second Thomas Shoal, the China Coast Guard came equipped with axes, knives and spears, and brandished these weapons while seizing two Philippine Navy speedboats. 

"Whether the consensus reached through diplomatic consultations can be implemented at the frontline for risk control and conflict prevention is hard to say," acknowledged Chen Xiangmiao, a member of China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies, in comments to state-owned outlet Global Times. 

China, which has built seven full-scale military bases atop natural reefs in the Spratly Islands, strongly objects to the Philippine outpost on a deteriorating shipwreck on Second Thomas Shoal. The Chinese government has accused Philippine forces of moving cargoes of construction material within Philippine waters in order to maintain the outpost, and has described maintenance as a provocative act. The U.S., a defense treaty ally of Manila, has called for China to desist from interfering with shipments to and from the site. 

"We urge [China] to cease harassment of Philippine vessels lawfully operating in the Philippine exclusive economic zones, to halt its disruption to states’ sovereign rights to explore, utilize, conserve, and manage natural resources in their territories and EEZs," said U.S. Amabassador to Manila MaryKay Carlson last month.