Chinese ships used water cannons to drive Filipino fishermen from a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, the Philippine military said, escalating tensions at the site of a maritime standoff two years ago.
The military is investigating the Jan. 27 incident, which was reported by the fishermen, Chief of Staff General Emmanuel Bautista said at a forum in Manila today. Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels remain in the area, which the Philippine Navy is purposely steering clear of to minimize the risk of a clash, he said.
Philippine troops will come to the aid of fishermen if “military force” is used against them, Bautista said. “In the event that violence is used against our fishermen, then we would have to react consistent with our mandate to protect the people and the state.”
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, with China rejecting arbitration. Bautista’s comments come as the U.S. and the Philippines negotiate a deal to expand the U.S. troop presence in the country, and as the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Harry Harris, arrived in the country for his first official visit.
“International opinion may weigh on China” when the UN tribunal rules on the dispute, Bautista said. “We believe in the process. We believe in the wisdom of the court and the international community,” he said.
China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters today in Beijing when asked about the Jan. 27 incident. “China’s maritime surveillance fleet is carrying out routine patrols in relevant waters,” she said.
China agreed last July at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations-hosted forum in Brunei to work toward rules to avoid conflict in the waters. Still, 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.
While the U.S. does not take sides on the dispute over the Scarborough Shoal, 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 the Manila forum. 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.
U.S. troops will be rotated in “several locations” in the Philippines when the deal on access is finalized, Goldberg said. Palawan province, part of which faces the South China Sea, is “very important,” he said. The agreement may be signed “very soon,” President Benigno Aquino said in an interview on Feb. 19.
Admiral Harris will meet General Bautista, Ambassador Goldberg, and Philippine Vice Admiral Jose Luis Alano during his visit, the U.S. embassy said in a statement. He will discuss ties between the U.S. and Philippines, the implications of the U.S. military’s rebalance to the region and cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the embassy said.
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.
The official Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary response that Aquino was ignorant to compare China to Nazi Germany, while the commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific, General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, said in an interview on Feb. 9 that Aquino’s comments were “not helpful.”