MANILA, Philippines — With Chinese ships watching from a distance, Philippine and US Coast Guard vessels conducted drills near a disputed reef in the South China Sea on Tuesday, in the first civilian maritime exercises between the two Pacific allies in the heavily contested waterway.
The Philippine Coast Guard’s vessels BRP Batangas and BRP Kalanggaman engaged the US Coast Guard’s cutter Bertholf in capacity-building exercises near Panatag Shoal—known internationally as Scarborough Shoal—in the West Philippine Sea, 90 kilometers from Subic Bay in Zambales province.
China’s sweeping claim
West Philippine Sea is the local name of the waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
It is not another name for the South China Sea, a strategic waterway nearly all of which is claimed by China, including waters within the EEZs of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam — all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) whose navies conducted exercises with the US Navy off Singapore recently.
A UN-backed arbitral court in The Hague invalidated China’s sweeping claim in 2016, in the ruling on a challenge brought by the Philippines.
Beijing, however, ignored the ruling, insisting on ownership of nearly the entire sea, which is criss-crossed by sea-lanes where $5 trillion in global trade passes every year and where islets, atolls and reefs are believed to be sitting atop vast energy reserves.
As the Philippines has no military muscle to assert the arbitral ruling, the United States and its Western allies regularly conduct freedom of navigation operations through the South China Sea to show China that they do not recognize its claim.