South China Sea: Beijing may take ‘strong countermeasures’ over dispute if Manila keeps pushing, analysts warn

South China Sea: Beijing may take ‘strong countermeasures’ over dispute if Manila keeps pushing, analysts warn

Maritime confrontations with the Philippines might provoke “strong countermeasures” from China, observers have warned, as the rival South China Sea claimants continue their war of words over a purported deal that Manila denies being a part of.

Neither side looked likely to back down after China publicised the transcript of what it said was a phone conversation with a senior Philippine military official over “a new model for management” of the Second Thomas Shoal.

The Manila-controlled submerged reef – less than 200 nautical miles (370km) from the Philippine island of Palawan – is part of the Spratly Islands chain also claimed by Beijing as the Nansha Islands.

The Philippines denies the existence of any such agreement with China and has warned its public against “falling for a false narrative”.

In the latest escalation in tensions, the Chinese foreign ministry on Friday urged the Philippines to “stop infringing on China’s right and provoking China”.

This came a few hours after Philippine national security adviser Eduardo Ano echoed a call on Wednesday from Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro for the Philippine foreign ministry to “take appropriate actions against individuals in the Chinese embassy … for violating Philippine law, particularly the Anti-Wire Tapping Act as well as for serious breaches of diplomatic protocols and conventions”.

In a statement on Friday, Ano accused the Chinese embassy in Manila of “repeated acts of engaging and dissemination of disinformation, misinformation and malinformation”, and called for the Chinese diplomats responsible to be expelled.

On Tuesday the Chinese embassy in Manila reportedly released to selected media outlets a transcript of the purported phone call between a Chinese diplomat and a Philippine navy officer, prompting the accusations of wiretapping from outraged Philippine officials.

The accusation, however, did not square with an earlier claim by Romeo Brawner, chief of staff of the Philippine military, that the purported recording was “a malign influence effort” from China’s ruling Communist Party and likely to be a “deep fake”.

“Transcripts can easily be fabricated, and audio recordings can be manufactured by using deep fakes. These reports only aim to serve as a distraction from the China Coast Guard’s ongoing aggressive behaviour,” Brawner said.



Philippines accuses Chinese coastguard of damaging its vessel in South China Sea

Philippines accuses Chinese coastguard of damaging its vessel in South China Sea

In Beijing on Friday, foreign ministry spokesman Lin Jian said Ano’s statement “precisely proved” that the Philippine side had “become weak in the face of facts and evidence”.

“China solemnly demands that the Philippine side ensure the normal performance of duties by Chinese diplomatic personnel, stop infringing on China’s right and provoking China, and refrain from denying the facts or acting rashly,” he added.

Hu Bo, director of Beijing-based think tank South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, said bilateral diplomatic ties had sunk to “the worst level” in recent decades.

“Even at the time of the arbitration case [at The Hague], the Benigno Aquino III administration didn’t deny the agreement over the Second Thomas Shoal,” Hu said.

He was referring to an arbitration case filed by Manila in 2013 to challenge Beijing’s claims to almost the whole of the South China Sea under what it calls its historic “nine-dash line”.

According to a 2013 report by the news portal, then Philippine defence secretary Voltaire Gazmin had told then Chinese ambassador Ma Keqing that the Philippines would “not violate the agreement not to construct new structures” on the Second Thomas Shoal, after Beijing raised its concerns over Manila’s reported plans to do so.

“Now the Philippines’ policy has turned upside down, which is a significant change compared with previous governments,” Hu said. “It’s very rare that the two governments are now sticking to their own version with no compromise.

“China has been on defensive but if the Philippines continues to push, I don’t think China will show any mercy.”

The international tribunal at The Hague ruled in Manila’s favour in 2016, but Beijing has refused to acknowledge the court decision.

Ding Duo, an associate research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, also said that Beijing would take “strong countermeasures” against the Philippines.

To manage disputes at sea, China had also made “gentleman’s agreements” with other rival claimants, including Vietnam and Malaysia, he added.

“China will certainly respond with strong countermeasures regardless whether it is from the perspective of defending the rights of the sea, or from the perspective of domestic public opinion, or even from the perspective of preventing other countries from following the footsteps of the Philippines.”

The two countries have had a series of confrontations around the Second Thomas Shoal in recent months, with Manila accusing the Chinese coastguard of blocking resupply missions to a grounded warship that hosts a handful of troops. Water cannons have been used against Philippine ships and China has also been accused of ramming vessels.

According to Collin Koh, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, Manila’s “assertive transparency” in publicising these incidents had put Beijing on the back foot.

“There is no way China can back down from anything because of domestic reasons, and there’s no sign that the Philippines is abandoning the current strategy Manila believes is quite effective.”

Koh said even if Manila was able to identify who had made the recording, “there would be growing pressure on the Philippine government to expel people within the Chinese embassy … and that is going to cause more issues between the two countries.”



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