Philippines probes alleged Chinese disinformation campaign over South China Sea

Manila also says Chinese diplomats illegally recorded a phone conversation with a Philippine military commander.
By BenarNews staff
Philippines probes alleged Chinese disinformation campaign over South China Sea The BRP Sierra Madre is anchored in South China Sea waters off Second Thomas Shoal, known as Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines, March 30, 2014.
Bullit Marquez/AP

The Philippines said Monday it was officially investigating allegations that Chinese embassy staff in Manila had engaged in a disinformation campaign related to the South China Sea.

The move followed a call by the Philippine national security adviser urging the government to expel embassy staffers for allegedly recording a phone conversation with a senior Filipino commander about military resupply missions to a disputed shoal.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs will look into any reports of illegal and unlawful activities by diplomatic officials, and undertake necessary action in line with existing laws and regulations,” the department said in a statement Monday.

While foreign diplomats are “accorded necessary liberties” in conducting their duties, they are expected to perform them “with the highest standards of integrity” and professionalism, it said.

Last week, top Philippine defense and security officials demanded an investigation into whether China had violated Manila’s wiretapping laws during the alleged phone call between a Chinese official and the Filipino government military commander, Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, who oversees the defense of the Second Thomas Shoal, also known as the Ayungin Shoal, among other contested South China Sea features.

Carlos, the head of the Philippine military’s Western Command, or WESCOM, allegedly agreed with an unidentified Chinese official to a “new model” for arranging for notifications of resupply missions to the Ayungin Shoal, according to a transcript released by the Chinese embassy to select news outlets.

Last week, Philippine officials announced that Carlos had gone on leave and was temporarily replaced.

Outpost in contested region

Manila maintains the BRP Sierra Madre, an old ship grounded at the Ayungin Shoal, to serve as the country’s outpost in the contested region. It is critical because the Ayungin lies near Mischief Reef, an artificial island where Beijing built a naval base in the 1990s.

WESCOM oversees Manila’s defense of the Palawan and Kalayaan islands, including the disputed Spratly chain.

On Friday, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry hit back at the call from Eduardo Año, the Philippine national security adviser, that Chinese embassy staffers be expelled.

“The Philippines’ response shows exactly their guilty conscience in the face of facts and evidence and how exasperated and desperate they have become,” spokesman Lin Jian said during a regular press conference.

“We ask the Philippines to ensure that Chinese diplomats can carry out their duty normally, and to stop provocations and infringements,” he said. “The Philippines needs to quit denying the facts and must not make reckless moves that will only backfire on the Philippines itself.”

Civilian mission

Against the backdrop of this controversy, a civilian coalition, Atin Ito! (This Is Ours!), was preparing for a sea voyage this week where a convoy of boats would deliver supplies to Filipino fishermen at Scarborough Shoal, known as Bajo de Masinloc in the Philippines.

The shoal, located 125 nautical miles (232 km) from the west coast of Luzon – the largest of the Philippine islands – has effectively been under China’s control since 2012 and despite a 2016 international arbitration ruling that dismissed Beijing’s sweeping historical claims to most of the South China Sea.

Filipino fishermen who venture out into the rich fishing ground at Scarborough Shoal are routinely harassed by the Chinese.

Members of the Atin Ito! (This Is Ours!) show the buoys that will be used in Scarborough Shoal, during a press conference in Quezon City, Metro Manila, May 8, 2024. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP)
Members of the Atin Ito! (This Is Ours!) show the buoys that will be used in Scarborough Shoal, during a press conference in Quezon City, Metro Manila, May 8, 2024. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP)

Rafaela David, chief convenor of the Atin Ito! coalition, said they remained undeterred despite several recent incidents between Philippine and Chinese ships in the disputed waters.

“China’s actions are failing to intimidate Filipinos,” David said in a statement. “Instead, they are only uniting us and inspiring us to go further in defending our rights.”

Atin Ito! is a broad grouping of nationalist individuals and civilian organizations. It launched its first mission last December to deliver supplies and Christmas gifts to Filipino troops stationed aboard the BRP Sierra Madre at the Second Thomas Shoal.

That mission was forced to change its route and detour to less controversial parts of the disputed waterway. The convoy was subsequently forced to turn back to shore after four Chinese vessels started shadowing its lead ship.

Preparing a blockade

This week’s convoy is scheduled to set sail for Scarborough Shoal on Wednesday morning from Masinloc town in Zambales province, a voyage that is expected to take two days.

Ray Powell, who heads Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation that monitors activities in the South China Sea, said on X that a huge Chinese force appeared to be preparing to intimidate the Filipino civilian mission.

“This will be by far the largest blockade I’ll have ever tracked at Scarborough,” Powell said.

The Filipino sea convoy will be escorted by the Philippine Coast Guard.

Jonathan Malaya, assistant director general at the National Security Council, said Monday that the upcoming trip to Scarborough Shoal would be “civilian” in nature.

“It is the government’s responsibility to ensure maritime safety. We need to make sure that our fellow Filipinos who are joining that trip and the foreign nationals that they have invited are safe because that mission is within our 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone,” Malaya told a news briefing.

“The objective of this mission is to help our fishermen in that part of the [West Philippine Sea] – that’s why they are bringing supplies,” Malaya said.

Jason Gutierrez and Jojo Riñoza reported from Manila.


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