Two months ago, a Chinese coast guard vessel challenged a Philippine government vessel steaming on its way to a disputed area in the South China Sea.

But the area was within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), where the Philippines has sovereign rights to explore and exploit the waters.

The Chinese coast guard had no business patrolling the area. It was beyond its 200-nautical-mile EEZ and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) does not recognize China’s EEZ from its artificial islands in the Spratlys.

China’s presence near Ayungin Shoal or what is known internationally as the Second Thomas Shoal was illegal. It had no legal basis to challenge the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) ship which was about to deliver food, water, and fuel to a platoon of Marine troops stationed at BRP Sierra Madre, which ran aground deliberately in Ayungin shoal more than two decades ago.

BRP Sierra Madre, a landing ship tank, was transferred to the Philippine Navy by the United States shortly after the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. It was one of 35 navy ships from Saigon that sailed to Subic naval base, home of the US 7th Fleet at that time.

In 1999, the Philippine Navy deliberately ran aground the transport ship in Ayungin to stop China from further encroaching into Philippine sovereign waters.

In 1995, China seized control of Mischief Reef, or what is known locally as Panganiban Reef in the Spratlys. Beijing has transformed the makeshift fishermen’s shelter in a half-submerged reef into a sprawling artificial island with a 3-kilometer airstrip after two decades.

The Chinese coast guard vessel that patrols areas near Second Thomas Shoal could be part of naval and maritime law enforcement vessels from Mischief Reef.

As the BFAR vessel was approaching Second Thomas Shoal, the Chinese coast guard radioed the Philippine government vessel and warned it to stay away from Chinese territory. It also warned that it would take action against the Philippine ship if it ignored the warning.

The BFAR should have warned first that the Chinese vessel was clearly in the Philippine EEZ and that it had no business in the area and was violating the country’s sovereign rights.

The crew of the BFAR vessel should also not worry that China would fire upon them even as they observed that the Chinese had manned their machine gun nests to scare away the Philippine government vessel.

China will not start a shooting war in the Spratlys. It was only trying to provoke the BFAR to shoot first so it would have an excuse to return fire.

The Philippine vessel was unarmed.

China has a habit of provoking and taking stronger action when the other party makes a mistake and takes action.

For instance, when the Philippine Navy made a mistake in arresting a group of Chinese fishermen poaching in Panatag Shoal, or Scarborough Shoal, in another part of the South China Sea, China responded by seizing control of the area.

When the Philippines made a case against China in 2013 before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Beijing responded by building seven man-made islands in the Spratlys.

Obviously, China was looking for an excuse to take stronger action against the Philippine government vessel which was often manned by the coast guard.

Sen. Imee Marcos, who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee, had chided the Philippine Coast Guard for doing nothing to protect the country’s interests in the disputed area.

She even reminded the coast guard of the speech of her brother, the president, before a joint session of Congress in July that he would not give an inch of the country’s territory to any foreign state.

She also castigated the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for filing so many diplomatic protests against China for encroaching into Philippine waters. These notes verbales were largely ignored by China.

In the first two months that President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr has been in power, 48 diplomatic protests were filed. More than 210 protests were filed by the administration of Rodrigo Duterte from last year until the first six months of this year.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo justified the filing of protests because if the Philippines remained silent on the Chinese intrusions, it could be misinterpreted by Beijing as the Philippines accepting China’s activities in the disputed areas.

The Marcos administration has to take stronger action against China’s blatant violations of Philippine sovereign rights in its 200-nautical-mile EEZ in the South China Sea.

Stronger action does not mean going to war against a much superior China. 

The Philippine Coast Guard must also initiate action by challenging the presence of the Chinese coast guard in the disputed areas, which are clearly within the country’s 200-nautical-mile EEZ.

One of the country’s occupied features in the Spratlys, Pagasa Island or Thitu island, is clearly outside the country’s 200-nautical-mile EEZ. Under Unclos, it has 12 nautical miles of territorial waters but it does not generate an EEZ.

The Philippine Navy has several ocean-going vessels that could “show the flag” in the disputed areas, especially around Pagasa Island which is close to China-held Subi Reef.

The Coast Guard could also arrest Chinese fishing boats straying into the country’s EEZ and escort local fishermen when they fish within the country’s EEZ to prevent China from harassing them.

There are many things the Philippine Navy, the Philippine Coast Guard, and the Department of Foreign Affairs can do to assert the country’s sovereignty and sovereign rights in the South China Sea.

It should not be intimidated by the Chinese coast guard challenge. The Philippines has legal rights under Unclos and under the 2016 arbitration ruling to drive away Chinese maritime law enforcement, militia, and fishing vessels within the 200-nautical-mile EEZ. 

Diplomatically, the DFA can put pressure on China to abide by the 2016 PCA ruling through the international community. It could start by pushing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to pressure China to come to an agreement on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

Among Asean states, there is already a consensus to have a legally binding code. China must stop its delaying tactics. It must behave as a responsible member of the international community.

The Philippines is on the right side of history. It also has all the legal rights.

It has to assert its rights.