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When the Filipino people elected Rodrigo Duterte to become their next president in May 2016, China saw a distinct opportunity to pull the long time U.S. ally away from Washington and into Beijing’s strategic orbit. Avowedly anti-American, President Duterte on his first trip to Beijing in October 2016 exclaimed that it was “time to say goodbye to Washington” — much to the delight of his host, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and other Chinese leaders.

But, perhaps Beijing has now decided to change the status quo in the region as their recent actions in the South China Sea near the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has alarmed the Philippine Navy Chief. The chief of the Philippines Navy, Vice Admiral Giovanni Bacordo called on his government on Monday (August 10) to protest the presence of Chinese ships near Reed (Recto) Bank and accused the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of trying to provoke the Philippines into firing the “first shot” in a potential conflict over disputed South China Sea islands.

The Navy Chief urged the Philippine government to lodge a protest with Beijing over the presence of two Chinese surveying vessels near Reed Bank for “about a week already” and that due to their speed of “about three knots” the navy had concluded they were “conducting surveys”.

The Reed Bank is a contested, energy-rich area of the South China Sea that the Philippines claims as being within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – a claim that was backed up by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016. However, China continues to dispute economic rights to the area, which lies 85 nautical miles from the Philippines’ Palawan Island and 595 nautical miles from the coast of China’s Hainan province. Talks aimed at breaking the impasse over a joint oil and gas exploration deal are stalled.

Reed Banks position within the Philippines EEZ (Wikimedia)

Bacordo told the Foreign Correspondents Association of The Philippines that the incident has been reported and a request to file a protest has been submitted. The admiral alleged that Chinese navy, coast guard, and fishing vessels are continuing to “loiter” inside his country’s EEZ and appear to be attempting to provoke Philippine ships into a confrontation.

In reference to an incident in February in which a PLAN warship locked its radar guns on a Philippine corvette, Barco said that whenever ships from the two navies confront each other in the contested waters, “the first one to fire the shot becomes the loser. So they will do everything for us to take aggressive action.” 

Bacordo then elaborated that he defined “loser” thusly because the “one who fires the first shot loses international [support], public support, because in so many of our engagements, we should resolve our issues through peaceful means,” reported The Manila Times. “First to fire shots, first to lose support,” concluded the navy chief.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea dictates that a country wishing to conduct a survey in another nation’s EEZ should receive formal consent first. Manila has not yet provided any public acknowledgment that such permission was given.

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The author has completed his graduation in History. An avid reader, his areas of interests include History and Defense and Security with the sub-continent and southeast Asia being his favorite regions.

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