Like the artificial islands it had created in the Spratlys, China’s claims on almost the entire South China Sea are resting on shifting sands.

The claims have no basis. China has violated international laws like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Take, for example, the Second Thomas Shoal, where a World War II-vintage Philippine Navy transport vessel had run aground in 1999.

It’s one disputed area in the Spratly group of islands. Manila calls it Ayungin Shoal. On the other hand, Beijing named it Ren’ai Jiao Shoal.

Under UNCLOS, the Philippines has indisputable sovereign rights over the shoal because it is within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the 350-nautical-mile continental shelf.

From China’s coastlines, the shoal is beyond its exclusive economic zone. Its claims are excessive and illegal.

Moreover, Second Thomas Shoal is a low-tide elevation that can neither be the subject of a sovereignty claim nor capable of appropriation under international law.

Thus, China is holding an empty bag in the claimed area. It has no right to interfere in the Philippines’s routine delivery of supplies to the stranded active naval vessel, BRP Sierra Madre.

BRP Sierra Madre stands as a symbol of the Philippines’ sovereign rights, challenging China’s claims.

Tensions have been rising around the shoal as dozens of Chinese Coast Guard and militia vessels blocked and harassed supply boats from the Philippines in regularly bringing in food, water, and other supplies to troops stationed in the rusting ship.

In early March, four crew members of a civilian indigenous boat, Unaizah May 4, were injured when its windshield was shattered by highly pressured water blasted from two Chinese Coast Guard water cannons.

A Philippine Coast Guard multi-role response vessel (MRRV), escorting the supply boat, also collided with a Chinese Coast Guard vessel, causing structural damage.

This was the worst harassment case, as some people were hurt. One was even rushed to a hospital when Unaizah May 4 returned to the port of Ulugan Bay in Palawan.

The Philippines has demanded the withdrawal of Chinese vessels around the Second Thomas Shoal, registering its strong protest over China’s dangerous and illegal maneuvers.

This year alone, Manila has lodged at least 10 diplomatic protests. Since the time President Ferdinand Marcos Jr assumed office in July 2022, a total of 143 protests have been filed.

China’s actions in attempting to stop the Philippines’ rotation and resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal are unjustifiable. It endangers lives and risks accidents that may lead to a confrontation.

President Marcos was worried a single incident in the disputed area could trigger an American intervention because of an existing Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the Philippines.

The Australians, Japanese, Europeans, and Americans shared the same sentiments as the Philippines and China assert their claims in the West Philippine Sea.

China has increased its presence and activities in two disputed areas – Ayungin Shoal and Scarborough Shoal.

The Chinese were worried the Philippines would repair and reinforce BRP Sierra Madre, which it expects to collapse soon.

In Scarborough Shoal, China was trying to prevent the Philippines from regaining control of the tadpole-shaped rocky outcrop.

President Marcos has ordered the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to patrol Scarborough Shoal constantly and assist local fishermen.

The move could heighten tensions in the area as warships from China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy have started showing up.

China seized control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 after a three-month standoff.

Another area in the West Philippine Sea is expected to heat up as Manila intends to begin unilateral oil and gas exploration in the Reed Bank.

China stopped a private company from exploring oil and gas in the Reed Bank in 2011.

Five years later, China offered a joint oil and gas venture to the Philippines, but nothing happened in the deal due to sovereignty issues.

The Philippine Navy and Coast Guard have offered to escort survey vessels to start oil and gas exploration.

The Philippines has gained enough confidence to assert its claims in the West Philippine Sea after acquiring two missile-guided frigates and two larger Coast Guard vessels.

The Philippines expects six Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) and two corvettes. It also plans to deploy additional frigates and missile-capable fast-attack interdiction craft.

Although the Philippines cannot match China’s military might, the military modernization effort should be enough to build a modest, credible defense capability.

The current navy and Coast Guard fleet can already patrol the country’s vast maritime borders.

It can protect Philippine national security interests in Ayungin Shoal, Scarborough Shoal, and the Reed Bank and assert sovereign rights in this area.

The Philippines has a rock-solid basis to assert its rights in the disputed strategic waterway.

On the contrary, China has no legal or moral basis to insist on its claims. It has infringed on the rights not only of the Philippines but other Southeast Asian states.