South China Sea: Philippines accuses China of ‘dangerous challenges’ near Scarborough Shoal

The Philippines has accused China of blocking coastguard patrols near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, just days after Beijing announced its seasonal fishing ban over the resource-rich waterway.

In a statement on Tuesday night, Hermogenes Esperon, a national security adviser to President Rodrigo Duterte, said the China Coast Guard conducted “shadowing, blocking, dangerous manoeuvres and radio challenges” to two Philippine Coast Guard vessels in the waters near the shoal late last month.

“We condemn in the strongest terms the ... manoeuvres, and radio challenges conducted by the Chinese Coast Guard against PCG vessels BRP Gabriela Silang and BRP Sindangan, during legitimate law enforcement patrols and maritime exercises while in the vicinity of Bajo de Masinloc on 24-25 April 2021,” Esperon said, referring to the shoal by its Philippine name.

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The shoal is a group of tiny, low-lying rocky islets off the east coast of Luzon, the main island in the Philippines, and is claimed by both countries. It is known as Huangyan Island in China.

The statement did not say how many Chinese vessels were involved or how the encounter developed, but it did add that Philippine Coast Guard vessels were on their way to the area “to enforce our fisheries laws and protect our fishermen” as part of the rotational patrols of Scarborough Shoal.

The shoal is a traditional fishing ground in the region and was at the centre of a stand-off between China and the Philippines in 2012 that prompted Manila to file an arbitration case against Beijing over its claims.

The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs said earlier this week that diplomatic protests had been filed against the Chinese coastguard’s actions at Scarborough Shoal.

The Philippines also said it dispersed Chinese “maritime militia” ships – fishing vessels in paramilitary service – in the waters near Sabina Shoal, an atoll in the Spratly Islands about 600km (370 miles) from Scarborough Shoal.

Esperon said seven Chinese vessels “nested or in stationary liner formation” were seen near the Sabina Shoal on April 27 and left 20 minutes after several attempts by the Philippine Coast Guard to make them leave.

In addition, Manila said more than 200 Chinese fishing boats were spotted in the waters near Whitsun Reef, also in the disputed Spratlys, in late March.

Manila has filed several protests to Beijing over the massing of the Chinese fishing boats, though Beijing claimed at that time that the Chinese vessels were taking shelter from bad weather.

In a tweet on Monday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin demanded China “get the f***” out of Philippine waters, but he apologised publicly on Tuesday to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, saying he was sorry for hurting his feelings.

The protests come as Beijing imposes its annual 3½-month summer fishing ban over the waters of the South China Sea north of the 12th parallel. The ban came into effect on Saturday and China has repeatedly said it is part of an effort to “preserve fishery resources” in the world’s richest fishing grounds.

But critics say the ban is part of China’s efforts to assert its territorial claims in the waterway, claims that are contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

South China Sea: Vietnam building up its maritime militia, magazine says

In the statement, Esperon, a retired Philippine Army general and the former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the Philippines opposed the bans and Philippine fishermen were “encouraged to go out and fish” in the waters.

Fishing rights are often at the centre of the disputes in the South China Sea, now a military flashpoint between the rival claimants of the vast and resource-rich waterway.

Vietnam, an outspoken claimant, rejected Beijing’s fishing ban, particularly in relation to the Gulf of Tonkin and the Paracel Islands.

Vietnamese foreign ministry deputy spokesman Doan Khac Viet said on Thursday the ban was a “unilateral decision” that had violated Vietnam’s sovereignty and international law.

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