By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporter
CHINA on Wednesday night denied its coast guard had aimed lasers at the crew of a Philippine Navy ship in an incident that has stoked long-running diplomatic tensions over China’s expansive claims the South China Sea.
A Chinese Coast Guard vessel used a hand-held laser speed detector to measure the distance and speed of the Philippine ship and signal directions to ensure navigational safety, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a news briefing on Wednesday night, based on a transcript posted on its website.
“The Philippine side’s allegation does not reflect the truth,” he added.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Tuesday filed a diplomatic protest against China after accusing it of trying to block the resupply ship on Feb. 6 at the Second Thomas Shoal, which the Philippines calls Ayungin.
The Philippine Coast Guard said its Chinese counterpart had pointed a military-grade laser light at the crew of BRP Malapascua, causing temporary blindness.
President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian “to express his serious concern over the increasing frequency and intensity of actions by China against the Philippine Coast Guard and our Filipino fishermen in their bancas,” the presidential palace said.
Mr. Wang said the Chinese ambassador had clarified the facts with Philippine leaders. “The diplomatic service and coast guards on both sides are in communication through bilateral liaison mechanisms.”
“We stand ready to work with the Philippine side to fully deliver on the important common understanding reached between the two presidents, continue to properly handle maritime issues through friendly consultation and jointly uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he added.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Thursday said it stood by the Philippine Coast Guard’s account.
“We have no reason to doubt the Philippine Coast Guard’s account of the incident,” Foreign Affairs spokesperson Ma. Teresita Daza told reporters. “BRP Malapascua was undertaking legitimate activities in the Philippines’ [exclusive economic zone], and the Chinese Coast Guard’s action placed the BRP Malapascua and its crew in danger.”
Mr. Wang earlier said the Philippine Coast Guard vessel had intruded into Chinese territory. He added that it was “widely known” that China had “indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands), including the Ren’ai Reef (Second Thomas Shoal).”
The shoal lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
China has ignored a 2016 arbitral ruling by a United Nations-backed tribunal that voided its claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea based on a 1940s map.
Foreign relation experts said the incident showed the situation could become “a lot worse.”
“It’s possible for an uptick in such foul sea incidents,” Lucio B. Pitlo III, a visiting scholar at the National Chengchi University’s Department of Diplomacy and Center for Foreign Policy Studies, said in a Viber message.
“This will surely stir bigger ripples in the contested sea,” he said, noting that the laser-pointing incident could push Mr. Marcos to seek out more security allies.
Manila might fast-track negotiations for joint patrols in the South China Sea, as well as for a visiting forces agreement with Japan.
“China, in turn, will surely respond to the presence of US or Japanese vessels or aircraft in the flashpoint that may operate out of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement locations,” Mr. Pitlo said.
‘LASER FOR LASER’“The Philippines will be right in the middle, with all the risks consequent to these disturbing developments,” he added.
“This will not be the first and the last,” Renato C. De Castro, an international studies professor at De La Salle University, said by telephone. “What will be crucial here is not our alliance, it’s not the ships of the coast guard and navy, it will be our political will and resolve to hold on to what we have and to protect our exclusive economic zone from China’s maritime encroachment.”
“This is part of what we call the gray zone operations,” he said. “Both sides are trying to gain strategic advantage in this very long game of trying to gain control of the South China Sea. The only hope is that no side would use force.”
The Philippines is put on the defensive, Mr. De Castro said, but “that doesn’t mean that we should not fight, or we would lose 85% of our exclusive economic zone, our entire maritime domain outside our territorial waters and probably even archipelagic waters will become part of China’s nine-dash line.”
China’s retraction revealed its intention to keep such incidents bilateral, he said, “but we don’t want it to be simply bilateral.” “They did not expect the reactions from Japan, the US and Australia, and even from Germany, so the fact that they’re denying it is an indication that they realized that they made a mistake,” he added.
China should offer more convincing proof, such as a video, about its side of the story, said Jaime B. Naval, who teaches political science at the University of the Philippines.
“Absent that, YouTube videos of Chinese use of the military-grade laser speaks loudly and believably,” he said in a Viber message.
“With China’s series of intensifying measures to box out the Philippines and other claimants off waters it claims as its own, it is only compelling rival parties to align and cooperate even more with the US and other major extra-regional powers,” he added.
Senator Ronald M. de la Rosa, a former national police chief, said lasers are not commonly used as communication devices, adding that the Philippines should respond similarly.
“If you want to communicate with other ships you have to use (blinking) lights but not pointing laser at the eyes of the crew of other ships,” he told reporters.
“What’s needed is a proportionate response. Depending on what’s being done to you, you should do the same,” he said in mixed English and Filipino. “Laser for laser.”