Philippines says Chinese Coast Guard damaged its ship at Scarborough Shoal

COURTESY OF PCG

THE PHILIPPINES on Tuesday accused China’s coast guard of harassment and damaging one of its boats near the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, and rejected Beijing’s claim that it had expelled two vessels from the hotly contested shoal.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said the two vessels stood their ground at the shoal, a key battleground in the South China Sea, but one sustained damage from the use of water cannons by two Chinese Coast Guard ships.

One PCG ship and a fishery bureau vessel were trying to distribute supplies to Filipino fishermen at the traditional fishing ground, which falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, on April 29.

“This damage serves as evidence of the forceful water pressure used by the China Coast Guard in their harassment of the Philippine vessels,” Philippine coast guard spokesman Jay Tristan Tarriela said in a statement.

“They were not deterred and will persist in carrying out their legitimate operations to support Filipino fishermen and ensure their safety.”

No country has sovereignty over the strategically located Scarborough Shoal, a prime fishing patch used by several countries that is close to major shipping lanes. The shoal is 240 kilometers west of the main Philippine island of Luzon and is nearly 900 kilometers from Hainan, the nearest major Chinese landmass.

In the statement, Mr. Tarriela said the Philippine vessels patrolling in waters near Scarborough Shoal “encountered dangerous maneuvers and obstruction” from four Chinese coast guard vessels and six maritime militia ships.

He said China Coast Guard ship CCG 3305 used fire a water cannon at a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessel at 9:53 a.m. on Monday, “directly hitting the starboard astern” of the ship.

Two other China Coast Guard ships used their “jet stream water cannons” against a PCG vessel when it was sailing some 1,000 yards away from the shoal.

Mr. Tarriela said the primary objective of the patrol was to “distribute fuel and food supplies” to Filipino fishermen in keeping with the Marcos government’s food security policy.

China for more than a decade has occupied the atoll and waters around its lagoon, which has long been a sanctuary for vessels during storms and have been the site of multiple confrontations in recent years.

China’s coast guard said the vessels had been expelled but did not provide details of the incident.

“China urges the Philippine side to immediately stop its provocative acts of infringement and do not challenge China’s firm determination to safeguard its sovereignty,” Lin Jian, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told a news briefing.

“China’s coast guard took necessary measures in line with the law to firmly expel them.”

The Philippines’ Mr. Tarriela said its vessel, the BRP Bagacay, suffered damage to its railing and canopy. He also said China has installed a floating barrier at the shoal’s entrance, “effectively restricting access to the area.”

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion of annual ship-borne commerce, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

A United Nations-backed tribunal in the Hague ruled in 2016 that China’s expansive claim had no legal basis, a decision Beijing has rejected.

China and the Philippines have traded accusations of illegal conduct at the Scarborough Shoal and Manila recently summoned China’s ambassador in Manila to explain what it calls aggressive maneuvers. China typically accuses the Philippines of encroaching on its territory.

China and the Philippines previously said they would seek better communications and management around skirmishes in the vast South China Sea, but tensions have increased recently, as the Philippines forges stronger diplomatic and military ties the United States.

An Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative report in February said Scarborough Shoal was among the five features in the South China Sea most frequented by China’s coast guard last year.

Philippine civic group P1NAS said the water cannon attack happened a day amid the joint military exercises between the Philippines and the US.

On Monday, the Philippines, the US, and France concluded their first-ever joint sail, which was under the April 24-May 8 Balikatan or shoulder-to-shoulder drills.

Their flotilla, which conducted gunnery exercises within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, had been shadowed by several Chinese warships, according to the Philippine military. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza with Reuters