COVER STORY

More incursions, more protests: A look back at PH-China relations, maritime row in 2021

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines)— The year 2021 marked a milestone for the Philippines, as the country commemorated five years since its historic victory against China over the South China Sea dispute.

But 2021 was also the year when Manila lodged a flurry of diplomatic protests against Beijing, which continued to assert its maritime claims despite the 2016 Hague ruling that invalidated them.

READ: Remembering the 2016 Hague ruling: What has happened since then?

As the year comes to a close, CNN Philippines takes a look back at the major issues concerning the West Philippine Sea and how the Duterte administration responded.

The Ayungin incident

In November, three Chinese Coast Guard ships blocked and fired water cannon on two Philippine boats transporting supplies to Ayungin Shoal, which lies 104 nautical miles west of Palawan and is well within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

No one was hurt in the incident, but it sparked a new wave of uproar among government officials — with other countries joining in the protest. China, however, maintained Philippine boats “trespassed” into its waters without consent.

The resupply boats completed their mission and arrived safely in Ayungin days after. But authorities still spotted a Chinese Coast Guard ship within the area, reportedly taking photos and videos while the boats were unloading, according to the Department of National Defense (DND).

A 'commitment' to remove BRP Sierra Madre?

After the Ayungin incident, Beijing issued yet another controversial statement — urging the Philippines to remove the grounded BRP Sierra Madre from the shoal in line with its so-called “commitment.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana refuted this claim.

“As far as I know there is no such commitment," stressed Lorenzana, who has served in the Armed Forces for decades. "That ship has been there since 1999. If there was commitment it would have been removed long time ago."

The military ran aground the World War II-era warship on Ayungin in 1999 to fortify the Philippines’ claim and provide a shelter to a small contingent of marines.

Massing of Chinese ships

Early this year, over 200 Chinese ships suspected to be maritime militia swarmed the Julian Felipe reef, also within the Philippines’ EEZ.

China claimed the ships were just fishing vessels taking shelter from rough sea conditions. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) called this a “blatant falsehood” while the DND said the ships presence is a “clear provocative action of militarizing the area." Both departments demanded that China immediately withdraw its ships from Philippine waters.

Going against the agencies’ assertions, then-Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque claimed that the reef is not part of the country’s EEZ, although he later noted the government will still continue to pursue its claim over the feature.

Following Roque’s remark, DFA Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said only his department has the final say when it comes to matters related to the Philippines’ foreign relations.

Harassment of media crew

In April, members of an ABS-CBN news team onboard a Filipino civilian vessel were chased down by two missile attack craft of the Chinese navy while they were about 90 nautical miles from mainland Palawan.

There have been reports of Chinese vessels driving away Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea, but the incident could be the first known case of alleged missile-capable boats doing the chase.

Upon the instruction of the DND, the Armed Forces launched a probe into the reported harassment.

Maritime row reaches Netflix... but gets pulled out

The Philippine-China maritime issue also hogged the global spotlight this year for a different reason.

Streaming platform Netflix removed two episodes of "Pine Gap" after the Philippine government protested the depiction of China's territory in the political drama.

The DFA said the series showed a map of the East Asian giant’s so-called nine-dash line — which illustrates its claims over virtually the entire South China Sea.

Contradictions?

While some Cabinet members expressed strong condemnations and engaged in a rare word war with Beijing, Malacañang maintained there is “no tension” between the country and China in the West Philippine Sea.

Some of the most controversial pronouncements, meanwhile, came from President Rodrigo Duterte himself.

In May, Duterte called the country’s arbitral win against China a “mere scrap of paper” that he can throw away in a trash bin. However, in a speech at the 76th United Nations General Assembly in September, he said Beijing’s noncompliance cannot diminish the award’s worth.

For international studies professor Renato de Castro, such contradictions in the President’s pronouncements may also be reflective of the divided positions of his Cabinet members.

De Castro said that on one hand, some executive officials may still be pushing for the policy of appeasing China, believing it leads to better trade relations and bigger investments that would benefit the economy. But he said another group of Duterte appointees may be “gaining the upper hand.”

“You have the Armed Forces of the Philippines, you have the Department of National Defense, you have the Department of Foreign Affairs who see a different picture of China. I think President Duterte is also eventually being convinced by this faction in the Cabinet,” De Castro told CNN Philippines.

Still, with months left before his term ends, the expert said the President has yet to drop his “myopic view” that it is possible to remain friendly with China amid ongoing tensions in the West Philippine Sea.

“I don't think people in the military, people in the Department of Foreign Affairs, still believe in that idea that we could separate the economic from the security, diplomatic. The Chinese don't believe that,” De Castro said.

READ: Duterte: PH, China would remain 'good friends'

Are diplomatic protests enough?

Data from the DFA as of Dec. 6 show the Philippines has filed 241 diplomatic protests against China since 2016. Of this number, 183 were filed this year alone.

Among Beijing’s activities that the government cited were the constant radio challenges against Philippine patrols, continued vessel presence in the Philippine EEZ, and the blocking and harassment of Filipino fishermen.

WATCH: Filipino fisherman recalls being blocked by China Coast Guard ship

While these protests are “not enough” on their own, De Castro said they are an indication that the Philippines is not accepting Chinese actions while sitting down.

“We need it,” he said. “We don't have the military capabilities so we can only rely on those diplomatic protests.”

What happens next?

For maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal, the Philippine government was able to show more force this year by calling the world’s attention to China’s “continuing disrespect” for the Hague ruling.

To keep the momentum going, he earlier told CNN Philippines the country should continue to enhance its presence in the West Philippine Sea and ensure the “apparent robust response” is not just mere pre-election posturing.

Another crucial step moving forward is to pass into law the measure declaring maritime zones under the Philippine jurisdiction. De Castro explained this is to compel whoever sits next as president to protect not only the country’s territory but also its maritime entitlements.

House Bill No. 9981, or the Philippine Maritime Zones Act, was approved by the House of Representatives on final reading in early December. A similar measure has been filed in the Senate.

De Castro added the government should continue to develop its military capabilities as a signal, not only to China but also to ally nations, that the country would not sit idly by amid incursions in its waters.