By Daniel Llanto

The Maritime Safety Administration issued a pair of announcements to Filipino fishermen and seafarers that it was blocking off parts of South China Sea where China was holding military exercises apparently to challenge an earlier US warning for China to stop militarizing the disputed seas.

These military drills followed a series of sorties earlier this month by Chinese warplanes into Taiwan’s airspace at the northern end of the South China Sea.  Beijing said those were intended as a warning to the self-governing island that China claims as its own territory to be brought under its control by force if deemed necessary.

Earlier this month, an Indonesian patrol ship confronted a Chinese coast guard vessel that spent almost three days in waters where Indonesia claims economic rights and are near the southernmost part of China’s disputed South China Sea claims.

The Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam have also engaged in push-back against Chinese claims and actions in the area, while progress in talks between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China over the South China Sea appear at a standstill.

The US State Department earlier accused China of going back on its word to not militarize the Spratly Islands, calling Beijing’s outposts in the area “platforms of coercion.”

Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus recalled Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s statement during a White House visit in 2015 that “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of the Spratly Islands and that China’s outposts would not “target or impact any country.”

“China has instead pursued a reckless and provocative militarization of those disputed outposts,” Ortagus said in a statement issued on September 27.

Ortagus cited China’s deployment of anti-ship cruise missiles, expanded surveillance capabilities and the construction of runways and hangars for fighter jets. The Spratlys are occupied by multiple countries, making them the most hotly contested of the South China Sea’s island groups.

China “uses these militarized outposts as platforms of coercion to assert control over waters to which Beijing has no lawful maritime claim, Ortagus said. “They serve as staging grounds for the hundreds of maritime militia vessels and China Coast Guard ships that regularly harass civilian craft and impede legitimate law enforcement activities, offshore fishing and hydrocarbon development by neighboring states.”

But China denied militarizing the region, saying the island developments are intended to increase maritime safety as well as assert Chinese territorial claims. It accuses the US of militarizing the area by sailing its ships nearby Chinese outposts in “freedom of navigation operations” and through other actions.

President Duterte received rare praise from critics for invoking before the United Nations a 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated China’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Duterte made one of his strongest defenses of the Philippine victory in the arbitration case in his first address before the annual UN General Assembly. China dismissed the conclusions of the Hague Tribunal and has long refused to bring the issue to any international arena.

Duterte, who has nurtured close ties with China since taking office in mid-2016, has long been criticized for refusing to immediately and forcefully demand Chinese compliance with the ruling. It found China’s claims on virtually the entire South China Sea on historical grounds inconsistent with international maritime law.

“The award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon,” Duterte said, without naming China. “We firmly reject attempts to undermine it.”

Former Foreign Affairs Sec. Albert del Rosario said he was heartened by Duterte’s move.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio also commended Duterte and hoped that “this is the policy that the Duterte administration will implement across all levels” in protecting Philippine maritime rights and seeking international support to enforce the ruling.

US-China friction flared again on Monday, with Beijing firing back at accusations by Washington that it is a leading cause of global environmental damage and has reneged on its promise not to militarize the South China Sea.

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