It was a scene straight from a Hollywood spy-thriller film — a nuclear-powered US attack submarine staring into a Russian typhoon-class attack submarine ready to fire its torpedo in an underwater standoff in the Atlantic Ocean.

Based on Tom Clancy’s novel, “The Hunt for Red October,” the tense situation was defused when neither side fired at each other, ending with the defection of the Russian captain and the delivery of Russia’s lethal weapon to the United States.

In February, a real-life drama at sea was played out in the disputed South China Sea when a People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) corvette pointed its guns on a Philippine Navy corvette, BRP Conrado Yap, a donated warship from South Korea.

Named after a Korean War Filipino hero, the corvette is the navy’s most advanced, but not necessarily the newest vessel, which can be deployed at sea for three weeks. It is designed to hunt submarines, a capability the Philippine Navy lost in the late 1970s.

For a few minutes, the entire crew of BRP Conrado Yap was nervous when the ship detected that the Chinese warship’s target acquisition system had locked on their vessel.

But the Filipino captain did not panic, kept his cool and called the hostile ship on the marine radio band, challenging it to leave the country’s exclusive economic zone.

The Chinese vessel responded, reaffirming its illegal and excessive claim on the strategic waterway believed to be rich in energy and mineral deposits.

The Chinese navy’s action was provocative. It could have led to a minor accident if the Philippine Navy did not exercise restraint and fired the first shot, giving China an excuse to blow the ex-Pohang class vessel into pieces.

China is playing a dangerous game at sea, bullying small and weaker neighbors to assert its sovereignty claim in the South China Sea based on historical records, which were invalidated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016.

Naval experts say the Chinese navy action on Feb. 17 near Commodore (Rizal) Reef was a hostile act, a clear violation of the Code for Unplanned Encounter at Seas (CUES) adopted in 2014 by navies in the Western Pacific region.

China and the Philippines are signatories to the agreement and there had been CUES exercises done in China among 21 navies, including the United States, Russia, Japan, Australia, South Korea and most Southeast Asian countries.

CUES is an agreement to reduce the chance of an incident at sea between and among countries and prevent it from escalating, as many navies patrol the South and East China Seas, two volatile areas in the Indo-Pacific region.

In the past, the Philippine Navy said Chinese warships never bothered to respond to any message in the marine radio band, increasing chances of an accident whenever they bump into each other at sea.

But the Chinese military has become more brazen in its activities in the disputed area, issuing warnings to foreign military vessels and aircraft passing near its seven artificial islands in the Spratly.

The United States and other extra-regional powers have not stopped conducting freedom of navigation and overflights in the area, increasing chances of accidents despite the CUES agreement.

As China expands its anti-access and area denial (A2AD) in the South China Sea, the incident at Commodore Reef will be repeated many times in the future.

Let us hope there’s no itchy finger on the trigger that could start a shooting war in the South China Sea, last seen in 1988 when China sank Vietnamese vessels and took control of Fiery Cross Reef, locally known as Kagitingan Reef.

Exercising restraint does not mean the Philippines will stop asserting its territorial claim and protesting China’s illegal activities in the area.

Keeping silent would be handing over to China the country’s sovereignty claim, and playing down China’ blatant violations of international laws and rules is cowardly and tantamount to surrendering the sovereignty claims.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana appeared to have lost the fire in his belly when he tried to rationalize and dismiss the Conrado Yap incident near Commodore reef.

It was unthinkable that Lorenzana, a retired army general, would be kept in the dark about a major incident at sea when he issued a statement demanding a briefing from the Philippine Navy about the incident, after Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr filed diplomatic protests over the incident.

It was very unlikely the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which received a report about the incident from the Western Command in Palawan, would report to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) without sending the same report to the Department of National Defense (DND).

The administration of President Rodrigo Duterte is in serious trouble when the DND and the DFA are not coordinating on crucial national security issues.

Worse, it could be catastrophic if Lorenzana was kept out of the loop as he indicated he did not know specific details of the Conrado Yap incident and expressed surprise when the DFA filed a protest.

Lorenzana should have been mad about what happened and condemned the action, but his comments saying China really had no intentions to fire and dismissing the incident as a hostile action was a total disappointment.

It seemed Lorenzana has joined the bandwagon to praise and thank China and turn a blind eye on its hostile behavior.

But the statements of Palace spokesman Harry Roque were not only a big disappointment but an embarrassment, when he rejected former Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio’s assessment that China was exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to assert its claims on the South China Sea.

It seemed Roque, like most people in the administration, is disconnected from reality as a big majority of the population distrust China and have condemned Chinese activities in the South China Sea.

The ramming and sinking of M/B Gem-Ver II was still fresh in their minds and the spread of the coronavirus added to the people’s anger and hatred toward Beijing.

The hundreds of thousands of dislikes on the Chinese embassy’s music video “Iisang Dagat,” which was seen as a propaganda material, is an illustration of the real sentiments of the people towards China.

There is a disconnect in the government’s foreign policy toward China with the public sentiments. Roque’s action in defending China is understandable as he tries to please his master.

But the sudden changes in Lorenzana’s stance come as a complete surprise. He may have his own personal reasons. There is tremendous pressure on him. He is trying to survive this administration and, thus, picking his battles.

He deserves support but he must show unwavering position against the bully China.