SECURITY CONFERENCE. Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo (2nd from left) during a panel discussion at the 2023 Munich Security Conference on Saturday (Feb. 18, 2023). Also in photo are (from left) Brazil Foreign Minister Mauro Luiz Lecker Vieira, Colombia Vice President Francia Marquez, Namibia Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila and Munich Security Conference chief Christoph Heusgen. (Courtesy of DFA Sec. Enrique Manalo)

MANILA – There have been regular cases of “harassment” in the disputed South China Sea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo confirmed before a security conference in Munich, Germany over the weekend.

Speaking during a panel discussion on “Defending the United Nations (UN) Charter and the Rules-Based International Order,” Manalo said these actions had hindered Manila from maximizing the resources in its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones.

“[O]n a day-to-day basis, there are still many events occurring in the South China Sea, and there are daily incidents, at least as far as we see it, of cases of harassment or land reclamation, which in many cases have been depriving the Philippines of the use of our exclusive economic zone,” he said during the Munich Security Conference panel session on Saturday, a recorded video of which was released by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

“It is these challenges which the Philippines and other countries in our region face, especially those who have claims also in the South China Sea,” he noted.

Since the beginning of 2023, the DFA had lodged nine notes verbales and diplomatic protests before China, whose “increasing intensity of actions” against Filipino vessels in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) have been openly criticized by President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.

Manalo said the Philippines continues to abide by the 2016 arbitral ruling, which stated that China’s nine-dash line over the vital sealane is illegal.

As Manila asserts this decision, Manalo said the UN could further help by creating greater awareness on the importance of a rules-based maritime order.

Manalo said the Security Council could initiate an open debate not necessarily on the arbitral award but on “rule and order to prevail in the maritime domain and the South China Sea”.

“I think discussions like that would help create greater awareness on the importance of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and also maintaining a rules-based order so that any disputes or conflicts are settled through the rule of law and through peaceful means and not through coercive measures or aggressive moves,” he said.

The call came amid heightened tensions between the Philippines and China after the latter’s coast guard flashed a military-grade laser against a Filipino vessel on Feb. 6, temporarily blinding its crew.

In the same panel discussion, Manalo clarified that the maritime row over the WPS would not be the sum total of Beijing and Manila relations.

“It's a very complex situation, the Philippines and other countries in the region have very strong links with China on the economic and cultural front. So that creates greater, more complexity to the situation,” he said.

Meanwhile, Manalo said he had a “candid exchange” with Ambassador Fu Ying, vice chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress of China.

“We talked about the latest incidents around Ayungin Shoal and how to further strengthen (Philippine-China) relations while managing our maritime differences and regional security challenges in Indo-Pacific,” Manalo said.

International attention

In a radio interview on Sunday, Senator Francis Escudero said the government is on the right track in handling the WPS while commending President Marcos for maintaining strong relations with China and the United States.

Escudero also noted that the administration, including the military, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the DFA are more active in issuing separate statements compared to previous administrations.

Mas nagbibigay ng pahayag si Pangulong BBM. Mas nagsasalita ang ating sariling DFA, AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippine), Coast Guard kaugnay sa paglabag ng Tsina sa WPS. Actually, nung pinatawag ng Pangulo mismo at hindi ng kalihim ng Foreign Affairs ang ambassador ng Tsina [Huang Xilian] para magpaliwanag ay malaking hakbang yan at malaking pagbabago kumpara sa nagdaang administrasyon. Pabor ako dun at pinapakita nito na mahalaga at importante ito sa bawat Pilipino (President Marcos, the DFA, AFP and Coast guard are more active in giving out statements regarding violations of China in the WPS. When President Marcos instead of the DFA secretary summoned the Chinese ambassador, it is a great leap compared to the previous administration. It showed the issue is important to every Filipino),” Escudero said.

The latest incident involved a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel reportedly directing a military-grade laser light at a PCG ship on a rotation and resupply mission of the Philippine Navy in Ayungin Shoal at the WPS on Feb. 6.

Escudero said the actions taken by the government gained international attention as some countries, including the US, Australia and Japan, also condemned the CCG. (With a report from Leonel Abasola/PNA)