Why the Philippines coastguard has launched a 'transparency initiative' aimed at China

Rising tensions between China and the Philippines could play a massive part in talks between President Xi and President Biden later this week, Debi Edward reports on how the rusting hulk of a WWII warship has become the latest point of contention

When we arrived to meet Commodore Jay Tarriela at the Headquarters of the Philippines coastguard we learned another re-supply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre was underway and he was going to be monitoring the entire operation.

Four hours later he emerged to sit down with ITV News in his office and give details of a successful, but difficult operation.

The Philippines had sent its largest ship and two supporting vessels to safeguard this November re-supply, where they were faced with a fleet of Chinese Coastguard boats, including maritime militia.

The Commodore said it was something the Filipinos have come to expect, and described what he said has become a familiar playbook of tactics to interfere with their mission - some of which are "default dangerous".

A fleet of Chinese Coastguard boats surrounded the Filipino ship on its November re-supply mission. Credit: Philippine Coast Guard

One of the first videos released from this latest re-supply operation showed two small Chinese Coastguard RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boat) cutting across the path of one of the Filipino boats.

Commodore Tarriela also revealed that, once again, the Chinese had fired water cannons in an attempt to thwart the course of the Filipino group.

The Sierra Madre is a dilapidated Second World War ship, which was intentionally grounded in 1999. It is marooned next to the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea - or the 'West Philippines Sea' as the government in Manila prefers it to be called.

The re-supply missions are for a crew stationed onboard the vessel, which was positioned to prevent Beijing expanding its landgrab in the South China Sea.

In recent months, the Philippines Coastguard has started what they call a "transparency initiative".

They have decided to film and photograph the confrontations which the coastguard and Filipino fisherman have faced, as they carry out routine, legitimate operations.

The Sierra Madre (pictured) is a dilapidated Second World War ship. Credit: ITV News

Commodore Tarriela admitted that these new tactics to show the world what is happening are part of a change in approach, since President Bongbong Marcos came to power.

He has taken a more hawkish approach to China compared to the previous administration under Rodrigo Duterte.

Earlier this year, President Marcos announced a deal for the US to increase its military footprint in the Philippines - almost doubling the number of bases to which American troops have access.

Since the start of this year, the footage released by the Philippines Coastguard, and the local media allowed to travel with them, has shown a series of high seas standoffs.

There was an occasion in February when the Chinese Coastguard used military-grade lasers to try to deter the Filipinos from their mission.

The water cannon was used in August, and during the most dangerous incident last month a Chinese boat rammed the Philippines coastguard, making direct contact.

'Those were the behaviours of other countries before we had a World War conflict,' Commodore Tarriela questions the possible consequences of China continuing to trespass in the South China Sea

There was also an audacious mission carried out by Philippines Coastguard divers to cut underwater barriers, which the Chinese had placed around a common fishing area.

According to Commodore Tarriela, the president himself ordered the Coastguard to do "whatever it takes" to remove the barriers.

Commodore Tarriela told ITV News they do have open lines of communication with their Chinese counterparts, but the sincerity of what they say and what they do, doesn't match up.

He accused the Chinese Communist Party of trying to destroy global order and questioned what happens if Beijing is allowed to continuing trespassing and violating international law in the South China Sea.

Commodore Tarriela suggested it would become a very big problem for the world. He urged US President Joe Biden to use his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in San Francisco, this week to tell him to his face that he must abide by and respect international laws.

Commodore Tarriela told ITV News it is a 'very big problem for the world' if China is allowed to ignore international law

The US president has already pledged his commitment to support the Philippines.

Following the ramming incident last month, he reaffirmed the terms of a 1951 mutual defence treaty with the Philippines, which would invoke action from the United States if there is any attack on a Filipino vessel, civilian or military, in the Pacific Ocean.

So far, China's actions have been calibrated not to trigger a conflict that might draw in the US, but the frequency of these incidents has already prompted the US Navy to station itself nearby and send a surveillance plane to monitor each re-supply attempt.

Other allied nations, including the UK, have also sent Navy vessels on Freedom of Navigation Operations, in a show of support for the Philippines.

It has done little to deter Beijing, and China's Foreign Ministry released a statement following this latest confrontation, claiming it is China's sovereign rights which are being violated.

Joe Biden has pledged his commitment to support the Philippines. Credit: AP

The Communist Party described the re-supply missions to the Sierra Madre as a provocation, and the Chinese Coastguard said it would defend against illegal activities in waters under China's jurisdiction to safeguard the country's national sovereignty and maritime rights.

China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea and has dismissed an international ruling at The Hague, in 2016, which ruled it had breached the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone.

This dispute is taking place hundreds of miles from China's shores, but in the past decade, and notably since that ruling at The Hague, the Chinese government has carried out extensive reclamation and construction projects on several atolls in the Spratly Island chain - which lies just to the west of the Philippines and to the east of Vietnam.

Satellite images show the Communist Party has developed military bases, with a runway, radar and missile systems.

The only viewpoint that China and the Philippines share is that these confrontations will continue and neither side is prepared to back down.

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