Filipino fisherman narrates harassment by China Coast Guard near Pag-asa Island
MANILA, Philippines—A China Coast Guard ship tried to drive away a Filipino fishing boat by blocking its path on its way to one of the sandbars near the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa (Thitu) Island in the West Philippine Sea, a recent display of Beijing’s continued assertion of its maritime agenda in the disputed waters.
Larry Hugo, a 42-year-old Filipino fisherman, said he tried to go to one of the sandbars near Pag-asa Island early on Monday (Jan. 25), his first time to venture out to the sandbars since November. But he was surprised when a China Coast Guard ship, with bow number 5103, prevented him from getting closer.
“I thought it was just passing by, there were many ships out there,” he told INQUIRER.net in Filipino by phone. “It suddenly blocked me. Like they didn’t want us to enter the area we used to go to,” he said.
“I saw no one, just the ship,” Hugo said. “It seems they’re preventing us from going to the sandbar area, two sandbars there where we’re going,” he said.
The practice of Chinese vessels driving away Filipino fishermen near Pag-asa Island, and the rest of South China Sea has been going on for years. It was the first time, however, for Hugo to experience Chinese intimidation after fishing in the area for many years.
“Before, they also watch out for Filipino boats there but not like what happened to me earlier. They were really close, about 100 meters from me,” Hugo said.
He said he counted at least seven other vessels, believed to be Chinese, too, near the area at the time of his ordeal there. China is known to be using maritime militias to assert its claim in the area to avoid escalating the dispute into a full-blown war.
“The only ship that blocked was the China Coast Guard,” Hugo narrated in Filipino. “The others were just floating near the sandbar. They have many ships there, around seven. There are others in the distance. I’m not sure what they are. They’re not fishermen, they’re just stationed there,” he said.
He was able to take a video of the ship after he turned away. He said he was afraid to film while he was in front of the vessel because it might provoke the Chinese.
“When I was turning around, I took the video because if I took a video of them and they saw me, they might get angrier,” Hugo said in Filipino. “I took the video and photo when I was leaving already. When the ship left already because I was afraid,” he said.
“I have many enemies at sea. Look. Those are Chinese ships in front of me. They’re blocking me and I can’t get to sandbar 2,” Hugo said in the 26-second video clip, speaking in Filipino. “I will leave first,” he said.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, including waters that are part of the territories of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
It has maintained an almost constant presence near Pag-asa, with the deployment of at least one coast guard ship and militia vessels. Elsewhere in the South China Sea, these ships at times chase away fishing boats or even sink them.
The latest episode of aggression near Pag-asa came after Beijing recently passed a law, empowering its coast guard to fire at foreign vessels. It was seen by observers as a move that would escalate tensions in the contested waters.
This new law should be a concern to the Philippines, said maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal.
“This is another step in their slow incremental imposition of their administration and control over the South China Sea,” he said.
“The exercise of the option to use force to implement their excessive claims in waters that rightfully belong to other countries under international law should be regarded as an act of aggression and unlawful use of force under the UN charter,” he added.
While coast guards all over the world can use force as part of their law enforcement operations, Batongbacal said China is signaling that “it is willing to use force to enforce their excessive claims, even in waters that belong to others under international law.”
Former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario said the new law “[was] a sobering reminder to the world that China remains adamant in pressing its illegal claims in the South China Sea, now with force and probably with violence.”
“For Filipinos, this also reminds us that China’s plans to take over our waters and put our soldiers’ lives at risk will not go away despite the so-called friendly approach of the Duterte administration toward China,” he said.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the use of force under international law was “generally prohibited” and China must follow its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“We hope no nation does anything in the West Philippine Sea dispute which would aggravate the situation,” said Roque in Filipino.
Edited by TSB
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