Philippine Coast Guard beefs up forces in disputed South China Sea territory

The Philippine Coast Guard's flagship BRP Terersa Magbanua patrolling waters near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Feb 9, 2023. PHOTO: PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD

MANILA – The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has moved to bolster its presence in the South China Sea amid tensions with Beijing over disputed waters.

The PCG said on Friday that it has deployed its flagship vessel, the BRP Teresa Magbanua, since Jan 28 to patrol the Spratly Islands – which Manila calls the Kalayaan Group of Islands – in a bid to help defend Filipino fishermen sailing in the area.  

The increased coast guard presence comes on the orders of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who is exploring deeper security cooperation with military allies Japan and the United States to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.

The PCG said it expects the number of Filipinos fishing in the Spratlys to “greatly increase” as summer nears.

Several territories have competing claims over parts of the Spratly Islands, including the Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

On Feb 9, the BRP Teresa Magbanua ordered a Vietnamese-flagged boat to leave the Philippines’ 370km exclusive economic zone after it was found fishing near Reed Bank, a seamount with a flat top located 157km off the coast of the island province of Palawan.

The Vietnamese boat’s crew packed their fishing lines after PCG members rode rigid-hull inflatable boats and asked them over radio to identify themselves and their purpose.

“You are sailing within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone,” a female PCG officer could be heard telling the Vietnamese ship in a video provided by the coast guard to the media.

The fishing boat was later escorted by the BRP Teresa Magbanua as it left Reed Bank.

The PCG’s move to beef up forces in the South China came days before a China Coast Guard (CGG) vessel on Feb 6 aimed a military-grade laser at a PCG ship near the Second Thomas Shoal, also located in the Spratlys.

The CGG’s actions temporarily blinded some of the Filipino crew, prompting the Philippines to file a diplomatic protest with Beijing against the use of the laser.

Mr Marcos, who kicked off the year with a state visit to China, also summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to his office on Tuesday to discuss the incident.

Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Andres Centino had a separate meeting with Mr Huang a day later.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin defended the CGG, saying that it was upholding Beijing’s sovereignty and “acted in a professional and restrained way”.

But countries like the US, Japan, Australia, Germany and Britain have all backed the Philippines in the laser dispute.

The incident has sparked a debate in the Philippines on whether the laser-pointing incident already constitutes an armed attack by China.

The Philippines has a mutual defence treaty with the US, which can be invoked should an armed attack occur against either country in the South China Sea.

Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Teresita Daza said on Thursday that it is a “bit early” to activate the treaty, but stood by the PCG in the laser dispute with China.

The Straits Times has sought comment from the Chinese Embassy in Manila on the PCG’s increased presence in the South China Sea.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.