On September 25, 2023, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) was given the order by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to remove a floating barrier installed by the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) in the southeastern area of the Scarborough Shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc (Under Masinloc in Spanish) and Panatag Shoal (Serene Shoal in Tagalog) in the Philippines. This was later deemed a “special operation.” It was revealed that the CCG installed the barrier on September 20 amid monitoring Filipino fishermen in the area. The operation was just the latest of many incidents involving the maritime dispute between China and the Philippines, centering of late on the sovereignty of this shoal in the South China Sea. China has claimed that it has sovereignty, using the controversial ‘nine-dash line’ as its legal justification. The actions of the PCG in removing the barrier, despite Chinese claims that the Philippines is violating supposed territorial waters, is in keeping with enforcing de jure Philippine sovereignty, since the shoal in question is located within the 200 nautical mile zone set out under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The move by the Philippine government can be viewed as pushback against China’s grey zone tactics in the South China Sea, and the likely hope is that it will dissuade similar actions by Beijing elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
The dispute on the Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines has its roots in 1995, when structures on stilts were first reported being built on Mischief Reef. This was followed by more structures elsewhere. Formal protests from Manila were disregarded by Beijing. In 2012, a standoff took place at Scarborough Shoal between PCG and CCG vessels, alongside vessels from the Philippine Navy (PN) and Chinese Navy (CN). Despite a mediated attempt by the United States to settle the dispute and for vessels from both countries to leave the area, China refused to leave the shoal and subsequently began efforts to militarize it. This was followed by increasing presence of CCG and CN vessels alongside vessels used by the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). The Philippines eventually brought the issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague in the Netherlands in January 2013. By July 2016, the ruling favored their claims over China’s. Manila has called the laying of the barrier an affront to its sovereignty. As of September 2023, 25 countries have called for the PCA ruling to be respected while 18 countries have issued statements that positively acknowledged the ruling. Five such countries that have acknowledged the ruling are from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), consisting of Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Vietnam. However, China has refused to recognize the ruling and continues its aggressive actions in the South China Sea.
The Second Thomas Shoal, known as the Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines, is another site of escalation. The CCG has recently been endeavoring to stop any supply vessels reaching the BRP Sierra Madre, a ship that was intentionally grounded in 1999 to prevent further Chinese intrusions in the shoal. The blockade is not the only way the CCG is stopping supplies from reaching the marines stationed on the Sierra Madre. Several events in 2023 reflect further escalation by the CCG: On February 6, CCG vessel CCG 5205 blocked the path of PCG vessel BRP Malapascua and used a supposed military-grade laser on the ship’s crew due to it being en route to BRP Sierra Madre. China denied the reports and insisted that the laser used in the incident was from a laser detector and green light pointer. Then, on August 5, CCG 5305 reportedly used a water cannon to prevent supply ships from approaching the BRP Sierra Madre, allegedly supported by PAFMM vessels used to block their path. As for the status of the Sierra Madre, claims have been made by former journalist Rigoberto Tiglao that Manila previously promised Beijing that the ship would be removed; however, this is denied by Manila. According to Philippine National Security Council (NSC) spokesman Jonathan Malaya, the Tiglao claims are an instance of propaganda being used by China to sow confusion.
The actions of the PCG in dismantling the floating barrier at the Scarborough Shoal is a clear indicator that Manila wants to ensure its sovereignty in the area, despite China’s attempts to stonewall them from enforcing their sovereign rights. Even though China has the upper hand due to its overwhelming military and paramilitary power, the Philippines is leaning on its diplomacy and non-military assets to respond to Chinese grey-zone tactics and ensure that a rules-based order is maintained in the Indo-Pacific.