PANATA ISLAND Literally means “Oath“ and internationally known as “Lankiam Cay”. It has an area of 0.44 ha and is located about 7 nautical miles east-northeast of Kota Island. At one time the island had a surface area of more than 5 ha, but strong waves and strong typhoons eventually washed out the sandy surface (beach) of the island leaving behind the calcarenite foundation that can be seen at low tide.(Photo courtesy of Naval Forces West, Philippine Navy)

The current pandemic has not stopped China from strengthening its control over the West Philippine Sea and it is up to other claimant countries in the region to start asserting themselves, maritime experts said.

Resource persons who spoke during a virtual conference last week entitled “Sailing a course through contested waters” organized by the US Embassy shared similar views along this line.

Jay Batongbacal, University of the Philippines (UP) director for Maritime Affairs and Law took note of several recent bold actions of China in the West Philippine Sea as proof of China’s real intentions of dominating the area.

He cited the incident which occurred on June 9, 2019 when the Chinese vessel Yuemaobinyu 42212 rammed the Philippine fishing vessel F/B Gem-Ver in the area of Reed Bank.

In September, Chinese ships prevented the merchant vessel Green Aura from passing within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal.

Batongbacal also cited the hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels that had been monitored conducting illegal fishing in the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone.

The latest reported incident was in February when a Chinese naval warship aimed its fire control director at the Philippine Navy vessel BRP Conrado Yap while it was sailing in the West’s Philippine Sea on a routine patrol and resupply mission.

“This is the equivalent of a person pointing a gun at another person as they pass by each other on the street. It is a hostile act, an act of aggression that was completely unwarranted and unprovoked,” Batongbacal said.

In March, China further sought to assert its expansive claims by creating two local districts, the Xisha and Nansha Districts, both of which include substantial portions of the West Philippine Sea.

“Despite China’s attempts to portray as being examples of good bilateral cooperation, have actually been in a deadlock when it comes to the most important and most contentious areas,” Batongbacal said.

Batongbacal also blasted China for its attempt at using the pandemic to undermine opposition to its actions in the region by initiating a music video “Iisang Dagat” anchored on the country’s COVID-19 response.

“It is an unabashedly good example of how China is trying to take advantage of the pandemic to try to undermine Philippine opposition to its incursions at sea by attempting a subtle and subliminal message,” Batongbacal said.

Learning opportunity

Batongbacal sees the recent events in the WPS as instructive to other claimant countries on the need to unify around a common stand.

“This emerging unity provides hope that the Southeast Asian claimants will at least come to realize the need for unifying basic common positions to serve as the foundation for dealing with China in the future.

Hopefully, when the situation clears, we will see a bit more coordination and cohesion among the ASEAN claimants when they return to the negotiating table with China,” Batongbacal said.

Sumathy Permal, head of the center for straits of Malacca, Maritime Institute of Malaysia added that China is not stopping on its bid to strengthen its claim within the so-called nine-dash line.

“China will seek and impose its control within the nine-dash line claim. I am not sure if how but think Southeast Asian claimants will stand up and exercise their right. A lot of engagement and there will be a framework to deal with China underlying in a projection that China will increase and impose rules,” Permal said.

Director General for Institute for the South China Sea, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, Dr. Nguyen Hung Son stressed the importance of pressuring China to adhere to “the rule of law” in its conduct in the disputed region.

“China is taking control in the South China Sea at least within the nine-dash line. The rule of law here is what matters and that is the interest of the international community. Ten years from now we will see an open SCS with international law is going to be the benchmark of every country in SCS,” Son said.

Son noted that China has also increased its activity in the East China Sea by conducting military exercises, encouraged “not only because of the COVID but by the cheaper gasoline price.”

“China is taking advantage of a pandemic. What we can say for certain is China clearly wants to demonstrate that they are not unimpeded by the pandemic,” Son said.

We have seen that China is doing so not just in Indo-pacific. They have been doing so elsewhere in Europe, Africa… to gain its footing in international geopolitics,” Son added.