PH vows no backing down as China warns vs provocation
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines vowed on Tuesday not to back down in the face of a Chinese effort to block its fishermen from a fiercely contested shoal in the South China Sea, while Beijing warned the Southeast Asian nation not to “provoke and cause trouble.”
The comments came a day after Manila cut a floating 300-meter barrier installed by Beijing at Bajo de Masinloc (Panatag or Scarborough Shoal), one of Asia’s most contested maritime features, making use of Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) personnel posing as fishermen in a small boat.
The move, which the Philippines called a “special operation,” could further strain ties that have deteriorated this year.
“They might still return the floating barrier, they might still do shadowing and dangerous maneuvers once again,” PCG spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela said on Tuesday.
“This is the only instance we were able to monitor the Chinese hav[ing] used floating barriers to prevent Filipino fishermen from entering the lagoon. According to the fishermen, the Chinese have been doing this a lot already,” he added.
The China Coast Guard was caught in the act of installing booms in the southeast portion of the shoal during a routine patrol by a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources ship manned by the PCG last week, where it also distributed food, water and fuel subsidy to around 50 Filipino fishing boats outside the shoal.
Media on board
Tarriela said Filipino fishermen could only fish “within the immediate vicinity” of the shoal because the lagoon has been guarded by Chinese vessels since the 2012 standoff.
Earlier on Tuesday, Tarriela said four Chinese vessels were in the area when a Philippine ship approached. But they were “not that aggressive,” he said, adding it was clear members of the media were on board the Philippine ship.
He said the China Coast Guard had even removed remnants of the severed ball-buoy barrier and had been measured in their response to the presence of the Philippine vessel, which reached its closest point to the strategic atoll since China seized it in 2012.
“We have shown the world the Filipino people will not back down and we’re still going to consistently carry out whatever is necessary for us to maintain our presence,” Tarriela said.
The shoal locally referred to as Panatag, which incidentally in Filipino means “calm,” is a prime fishing spot about 200 kilometers off the Philippines and within its exclusive economic zone. It has been the site of decades of on-off disputes over sovereignty.
China has accused the Philippines of “intruding” in what were indisputably Chinese waters. On Tuesday, it warned Manila to steer clear of provocations.
“We advise the Philippines side not to provoke and cause trouble,” foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a regular press briefing.
The PCG said the government is working on ways to “take control” of the shoal.
“Since the new administration took office, we have already strategized how can we be able to take control once again of Bajo de Masinloc, especially the lagoon,” Tarriela said.
“For so many months, we were able to calibrate our deployment in such a time that we can already anchor the distance of 300 meters. This will be sustained in the next coming days but I don’t want to detail in public how we are going to do that,” he added.
Sen. Francis Tolentino, chair of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, urged the Department of Foreign Affairs to “laymanize” the issues surrounding violations of the Philippines’ sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea and find innovative ways to communicate these to the Filipino people.
Tolentino made the suggestion as the DFA briefed a Senate panel on its proposed P23.9-billion funding for 2024 or an increase of 15.4 percent from the P20.7 billion given to it for 2023.
Ties have soured between the Philippines and China this year as President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. seeks to strengthen relations with the United States.
Such efforts include giving the US military expanded access to Philippine bases, a move criticized by China as provocative and liable to stoke regional tension.