Philippine Coast Guard deploys to disputed reef amid rising tensions in South China Sea

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) announced Sunday that it deployed two ships to the Julian Felipe Reef (also called the Whitsun Reef) in response to an alleged increase in Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) ships in the area.

PCG spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela stated that the PCG noticed the alleged increase in CMM activity on November 13th, leading National Security Adviser and Chair of the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea General Eduardo Año to order the PCG to patrol the area. The PCG deployed two ships to the area Saturday and allegedly found over 135 CMM vessels in the area. The PCG further alleged that it attempted to hail the vessels with no response. Tarriela concluded, writing:

The PCG maintains its unwavering commitment to safeguarding maritime security, safety and the marine environment in the course of protecting the territorial integrity, sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea in accordance with international laws including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the 2016 Arbitral Award and Philippine domestic laws.

The deployment comes as tensions between the Philippines and China have heightened in the disputed South China Sea (also called the West Philippine Sea). In September, the PCG removed a floating barrier near the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, which it claimed had been placed by China to prevent Philippine fishermen from accessing nearby fishing grounds. Philippine President Ferdinand “BongBong” Marcos Jr. and Chinese President Xi Jinping met on November 17 during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Conference in San Francisco. Later, when asked what was discussed, Marcos stated:

Essentially, we tried to come up with mechanisms to lower the tensions in the South China Sea and that’s essentially the message that we said…Whenever this issue comes up I always bring up the plight of our fishermen and its asked that we go back to a situation where both Filipino and Chinese fishermen were fishing together in these waters.

Days after, from November 21-23, the US and the Philippines conducted joint maritime and air patrols in the South China Sea.

In 2016, the Philippines brought the territorial dispute before an international tribunal, which ruled that China’s long alleged nine-dash line territorial claim was not legal and protected Filipino fishermen’s right to fish in the South China Sea. However, China rejected the ruling, continuing to allege the South China Sea is part of its territory. Tensions have continued with a continued US military presence in the area, supporting the Philippine government’s territorial claims. In 2021, China passed a law allowing the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) to fire upon foreign vessels or structures in the disputed areas of the South China Sea, receiving strong condemnation from the Philippines.

Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all have competing claims against China in the the South China Sea. The area is an important shipping route, rich in natural resources including oil and natural gas. It is also an ancestral fishing ground for multiple countries claiming sovereignty.

The Chinese government has yet to comment on the deployment.