The incident earlier this year between Philippine and Chinese naval vessels near Commodore Reef foreshadows dynamics that might characterize regional maritime security in the face of an increasingly assertive China. In this regard, it is essential to reexamine the incident through the lens of international law and good order at sea to understand its implications.
Revisiting the Commodore Reef Incident
On February 17, 2020, the Philippine Navy corvette BRP Conrado Yap (PS-39) conducted a patrol mission near the Philippine-occupied Commodore Reef in the South China Sea (SCS). During the mission, it encountered a PLA Navy (PLAN) corvette with hull number 514. PS-39 radioed the Chinese Navy Ship (CNS)-514, which responded with the following statement: “The Chinese government has indisputable sovereignty over the SCS, its islands and its adjacent waters.” Subsequently, PS-39 instructed the CNS-514 to proceed directly to its next destination but the Chinese vessel simply repeated its earlier response and maintained its course and speed.
In an interview, an official of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command (AFP-WESCOM) noted that PS-39’s crew visually observed that the gun control director of the CNS-514 was being aimed at their ship. The AFP-WESCOM official explained that the “gun control director can be used to designate and track targets and make all the main guns ready to fire in under a second.” He also argued that the visual identification confirmed the “hostile intent” of the Chinese vessel.