USS William P Lawrence
USS William P Lawrence with the Indian Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, and Philippine Navy in formation drills in the South China Sea back in 2019. US Pacific Fleet IG

The West Philippine Sea, a crucial maritime region, witnessed a surge in tensions as two Chinese warships were observed shadowing fleets from the United States, the Philippines, and France during recent maritime drills.

According to reports from naval officials, the Chinese vessels have been closely monitoring the movements of naval assets from the US, the Philippines, and France as they conducted 'joint exercises' in the WPS. These exercises, which also involved various types of naval vessels and aircraft, were aimed at enhancing interoperability and coordination among the allied forces.

The vessels, marked People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) warships with bow numbers 793 and 167, were not engaging with the naval vessels but were following closely, said Armed Forces of the Philippines' Western Command spokesperson Capt. Ariel Coloma.

Maritime Conflict

The West Philippine Sea, which encompasses vital shipping lanes and is believed to contain significant oil and gas reserves, has been a flashpoint of tensions between China and its neighbouring countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam.

China's expansive claims, based on its controversial 'nine-dash line map' first published in the 1940s, have been vigorously contested by other claimant states and rejected by an international tribunal in 2016.

The map, which outlines China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, has been a source of contention as it overlaps with the exclusive economic zones of other countries.

These disputes, which involve issues such as the delimitation of maritime boundaries, the status of disputed features, and the exploitation of natural resources, have been a source of tension in the region for years.

Naval exercises and patrols by the US, the Philippines, and other regional allies promote maritime security, enhance interoperability among allied forces, and deter aggressive actions by external actors.

However, China's persistent presence and surveillance activities in the WPS continue to challenge these efforts and raise concerns about the risk of 'miscalculation or confrontation.' This refers to the potential for accidental clashes or escalations of tensions that could lead to a military conflict.

Tensions between China and the Philippines date back to 2012 when the PH Navy arrested two Chinese fishermen at the Scarborough Shoal.

However, Chinese maritime surveillance vessels intervened; this resulted in months of diplomatic back and forth until the two nations decided to remove ships in the area with the help of US intervention.

Allies and Foes

The Philippine government voiced its commitment to safeguarding its sovereign rights and maritime interests. Philippine officials have called for restraint and 'strict adherence to international law.'

This includes respecting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which provides the legal framework for resolving maritime disputes, and refraining from actions that could escalate tensions or violate the rights of other countries.

On July 12, 2016, the arbitral tribunal delivered a surprising ruling on the dispute - favouring the Philippines in 14 of its 15 claims against China's expansive territorial claims. The court said that China's nine-dash claim violated international law.

The United States has reiterated its commitment to supporting its allies and partners, including the Philippines, in upholding a free and open maritime order. The US has been conducting freedom of navigation operations to challenge China's excessive maritime claims and demonstrate its commitment to international law.

France, which maintains territories in the Indo-Pacific region, has expressed its support for a rules-based order and has called for a peaceful resolution of maritime disputes based on international law.