The Philippines summoned China’s envoy in Manila to protest the use of water cannons on Jan. 27 to drive Filipino fishing boats from a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, calling it an act of harassment.
“We call on China to respect our sovereignty and the rights of our fishermen in that area,” Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said in a televised briefing in Manila yesterday. The Philippines “strongly protests the acts of harassment and the manner by which these were committed.”
Philippine troops will come to the aid of fishermen if military force is used against them, Chief of Staff General Emmanuel Bautista said Feb. 24, as tensions escalated over the Scarborough Shoal, the site of a maritime standoff two years ago. The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, lacks the military power to deter China from the contested waters rich in oil, gas and fish and has asked the United Nations to rule on disputes, a process China has rejected.
The U.S. is aware of reports about the water-cannon use, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters yesterday in Washington. “Obviously, we’d be concerned, if those reports are confirmed, about that type of aggression,” she said.
The Philippines’ government will ask China to explain the incident in which a Chinese coast guard vessel blew its horn and fired water cannons on two fishing boats, President Benigno Aquino told reporters in Cebu City yesterday. “It’s proper for us to ask them what this incident was all about.”
“Ships carrying out duties on the Huangyan waters are Chinese government ships and the purpose is to protect China’s sovereignty and keep order in that area,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters yesterday in Beijing. “We hope the country in question will respect China’s sovereignty.”
Philippine fishing vessels have been routinely and peacefully fishing in the shoal that the government calls Bajo de Masinloc, Hernandez said, adding it received nine similar reports of harassment by Chinese vessels last year.
“The department vehemently protests the acts of China when its law enforcement vessels drove away Philippine fishing vessels seeking shelter in the Philippines’ Bajo de Masinloc during inclement weather,” Hernandez said.
China agreed in July at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations-hosted forum in Brunei to work toward rules to avoid conflict in the waters. There has not been major progress on developing a code of conduct, and China introduced fishing rules in January requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast.
Aquino in an interview with the New York Times published Feb. 5 sought global support to defend territory in the South China Sea from China, drawing a parallel with the West’s failure to back Czechoslovakia against Adolf Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland in 1938.
“We have a clear risk of permanent estrangement between the Philippines and China, especially after Aquino likened China to Nazi Germany,” Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University, said by phone. Given China’s new fishing rules off the coast of Hainan the water cannon incident “shouldn’t come as a surprise, and similar reported incidents will mostly likely increase in the future,” he said.
The latest incident at the shoal is “really alarming,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, a spokesman for the Philippine military. Still, it “does not merit a military response,” he told reporters yesterday. “We have to always think about not escalating the already volatile situation in the area.”
While the U.S. doesn’t take sides on the shoal dispute, it believes “there is no such thing as the nine-dash line” map, which is China’s basis for claiming most of the South China Sea, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg said at a Manila forum Feb. 24. The U.S. supports the “right” of the Philippines to seek arbitration, “but that doesn’t mean we support each and every part of the case,” Goldberg said.
The U.S. and the Philippines are negotiating a deal to expand the U.S. troop presence in the country, and the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Harry Harris, arrived Feb. 24 for his first official visit.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at email@example.com