On August 5, the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) used a water cannon against a Philippine patrol boat carrying supplies to a Philippine military outpost in the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone. The incident was shocking, not only because of the CCG’s indiscriminate use of a harmful weapon against the Philippine Coast Guard, but because of other recent successes of the Philippines’ transparency strategy to highlight China’s aggression in its EEZ. The Philippine transparency strategy has achieved significant measures in curbing China’s aggression and raising international support for the Philippines. The water cannon incident reveals both the limitations of the Philippines’ strategy and the motivations behind China’s actions.
The Second Thomas Shoal is an uninhabitable maritime feature that falls squarely within the Philippines’ EEZ. It lies approximately 104 nautical miles off the Philippine island of Palawan. It falls outside any state’s territorial sea, and therefore no state can legally claim sovereignty over it. China, however, claims the Second Thomas Shoal as its own. In 1999, the Philippines ran aground a WWII-era former U.S. Navy vessel, the BRP Sierra Madre, and stationed Philippine Marines on it in order to bolster its claim to the Shoal. Philippine resupply missions to the Sierra Madre have led to repeated clashes between PCG and CCG vessels, as well as Chinese maritime militia ships, in recent months. In February, the CCG used a laser that temporarily blinded Philippine personnel in February. This month’s water cannon incident marked a dangerous violation of international law and norms.
The water cannon incident was caught on video and publicized to the world as part of the Philippines’ transparency strategy. The transparency strategy was launched this year to expose China’s violations of Philippine rights in the “West Philippine Sea,” the Philippine name for the area of the South China Sea that falls within the Philippines’ EEZ. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which both China and the Philippines are signatories, the Philippines has the exclusive right to exploit the living and nonliving resources within 200 nautical miles of its territorial sea. Since at least the 2000s, China has regularly harassed Philippine personnel and Filipino fishermen operating within the Philippine EEZ, swarmed its vessels around Philippine maritime features, and sought to intimidate people living on outlying Philippine islands. For example, China’s Navy, Coast Guard, and maritime militia vessels regularly swarm Pag-Asa, a tiny Philippine island off the coast of Palawan, as well as features such as Whitsun and Iroquois Reefs and Sabina Shoal. In the 2010s, China launched an island-building program, creating artificial islands on features within the Philippine EEZ. In protest, the Philippines brought an arbitration claim against China. In 2016, an international arbitration tribunal formed under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea invalidated China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea that lay beyond the borders prescribed by UNCLOS.
The transparency initiative now takes that court victory to the court of public opinion. The transparency strategy stands in sharp contrast to the past Philippine administration’s stance on China. Under President Rodrigo Duterte, China’s violations were often kept quiet. Since President Bongbong Marcos came to power in 2022, the Philippines has been more likely to call China out for its bad behavior. According to PCG Commodore Jay Tarriela, the PCG’s spokesperson and orchestrator of the transparency initiative, the strategy aims to assert Philippine sovereignty while preventing unnecessary escalation. It attempts to expose China’s aggression and raise domestic and international awareness of violations of Philippine rights and sovereignty. In doing so, the Philippines hopes to stimulate international discussions and build an international coalition to support the rule of law, thereby bringing international pressure to bear against China.
According to a presentation given by Commodore Tarriela this month at the US Indo-Pacific Command’s Military Law and Operations conference, which I attended, the initiative has achieved some notable successes. First, the CCG’s operational position has changed since the outset of the initiative. Since their behavior was exposed, the CCG is more likely to follow PCG ships from the side rather than from behind. Even when the PCG ships are being followed closely by much larger CCG vessels, this change in position allows the PCG better room to maneuver to conduct their operations. Second, the initiative has succeeded in raising awareness of China’s aggression in the international community. The United States, Japan, Australia, the EU, and other allies have spoken out more loudly and repeatedly against China’s aggression in the South China Sea since the transparency initiative began. Thus far, the initiative has also exposed China’s harsh rhetoric on Philippine claims in the South China Sea as a mere threat. The Philippine Marines remain on the Sierra Madre, and the Philippines continues to resupply it.
However, transparency alone cannot stop China’s ambitions—or mother nature. The Sierra Madre is falling apart. Analysts believe it will succumb to the elements if it is not significantly reinforced or replaced. China stands to gain if the old ship sinks. Justifying the water cannon incident, China foreign ministry claimed that the Philippines was transporting “illegal construction materials” to the site. To the author’s knowledge, Philippine authorities have not confirmed that the resupply ship carried building materials. But the statement reveals China’s hand. The Sierra Madre’s long-term presence in waters claimed by China is a thumb in the eye to China’s maritime claims. If China attacked the ship, the U.S.’s defense treaty obligations to the Philippines might be triggered, which could lead to international armed conflict. However, given enough time, the elements may do China’s dirty work instead. China’s artificial islands are closer to the Sierra Madre than any permanent Philippine installations. China will be the first to answer a distress call if the ship sinks, which would make them appear to be international heroes – and give them cover to occupy the Shoal.
The international community must help the Philippines continue to expose China’s actions—and China’s motives. But transparency alone cannot stop the Sierra Madre from triggering a disaster. The moment China can prey on the Sierra Madre’s weakness, it will. The international community must support the Philippines to ensure that the Philippines’ position in its EEZ remains strong. Otherwise, the Sierra Madre will erode completely—and international law along with it.