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 Ministry of 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,” he said.
Philippine troops will come to the aid of fishermen if military force is used against them, Philippine Chief of Staff General Emmanuel Bautista said on Monday, as tensions escalated over the Scarborough Shoal, which is known as Huangyan Island (黃岩島) in Taiwan, the site of a maritime standoff two years ago.
The Philippines, a US treaty ally, lacks the military power to deter China from the contested waters rich in oil, gas and fish and has asked the UN to rule on disputes, a process China has rejected.
The Philippine government will ask China to explain the incident, when a Chinese coast guard vessel blew its horn and fired water cannons on two fishing boats, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III told reporters in Cebu City yesterday.
“It’s proper for us to ask them what this incident was all about,” Aquino said.
China does not accept the Philippines’ claim, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) told reporters yesterday in Beijing.
“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,” she said. “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 that 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 last year at an ASEAN 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 last month requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast.
Aquino in an interview with the New York Times published on 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 telephone.
Given China’s new fishing rules off the coast of Hainan the water cannon incident “should not 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.