Over 40 Chinese Vessels Swarm Philippine-Claimed Island Ahead of Talks

By Aldgra Fredly
Aldgra Fredly
Aldgra Fredly
Aldgra Fredly is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, covering Asia Pacific news for The Epoch Times.
March 6, 2023Updated: March 6, 2023

More than 40 Chinese vessels were spotted swarming Thitu Island, a contested Philippine-occupied island, on March 4 as negotiations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea set to resume this week.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said that China’s navy ship, coast guard vessel, and 42 suspected Chinese maritime militia vessels anchored near Thitu Island, also known as Pag-asa Island in the Philippines.

“These Chinese vessels are estimated to have a distance of approximately 4.5 to 8 nautical miles from Pag-asa Island, clearly inside the land feature’s 12 nautical mile territorial sea,” the PCG said in a statement.

It stated that the Chinese naval vessel and coast guard ship were spotted loitering in the waters surrounding the island, while the suspected militia vessels were anchored in the vicinity of Pag-asa Cay 3 and Pag-asa Cay 4.

“Their continuing unauthorized presence is clearly inconsistent with the right of innocent passage and a blatant violation of the Philippines’ territorial integrity,” the PCG added.

Thitu Island is the largest island in the Philippine-occupied Kalayaan Island Group in the Spratly Islands chain. The PCG said the island is home to more than 400 civilians, including military and government personnel.

The incident occurred ahead of a two-day talk on the South China Sea code of conduct in Indonesia on March 8, which will include China and some southeast Asian countries with claims to the disputed sea.

During a summit in Cambodia in November between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. called for the early conclusion of the code of conduct in the South China Sea based on international law.

“It shall be an example of how states manage their differences: through reason and through right. I, therefore, welcome the progress on textual negotiations on the [code of conduct] this past year and hopefully an approved code of conduct in the very near future,” Marcos said.

Although the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) classifies maritime areas within 200 nautical miles of coastal nations’ borders as part of their exclusive economic zones, China disputes Philippine sovereignty over some islands.

Beijing claims much of the South China Sea as its own territory under its so-called “nine-dash line.” The Hague Tribunal ruled in favor of legal action taken by the Philippines in 2016, but the ruling did not see the Chinese regime change its behavior, with Chinese vessels repeatedly intruding into the Philippines’ maritime zones.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei have also clashed with China over its claims in the sea.

Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the dispute, but Beijing claims sovereignty over parts of the sea that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Philippines Seeks US, Australian Cooperation

The Philippines has begun talks with the United States and Australia over possible joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea to counter Beijing’s growing assertiveness.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke by phone with Philippine Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez in February and reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to bolstering the Philippines’ defense capabilities.

Austin reiterated that any armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments.

The two leaders also discussed opportunities to expand security cooperation “with like-minded nations, such as Japan, that seek to uphold the rules-based international order,” the Pentagon said.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles met with Galvez in Manila and agreed to explore ways to pursue “joint patrols together in the South China Sea.”

Marles said that Australia will send “one of its largest contingents” to join the U.S.–Philippine annual joint military exercise, while the Philippines will send its observers to join Exercise Talisman Sabre—a multinational military drill led by Australia and the United States.

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