Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Philippine president: Not pursuing trouble, defending territory by removing Chinese sea barrier


Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Friday said he was not “looking for trouble” but was defending Manila’s territory when he ordered the removal of a floating barrier China had installed at a disputed South China Sea shoal.

On Sunday, Manila accused the China Coast Guard of planting a 328-yard long barrier on Sept. 22 that obstructed the entrance of Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippine Coast Guard a day later removed in a “special operations.”

“We are avoiding conflict. We are avoiding heated words. But we will strongly defend the territory of the Philippines,” Marcos told reporters during a visit to Siargao island in the southern Philippines

“In terms of taking down the barrier, I don’t see what else we could [have done] because when we cut down the barrier, our fishermen were able to go in and catch 164 tons of fish. That’s how much they lose in a day,” he said on the sidelines of a rice distribution event.  

There should not be any barriers” at that shoal “and that is clearly within Philippine territory,” Marcos said. 

“We are not looking for trouble, but we will defend our territory and the rights of our fishermen to go to their traditional fishing grounds,” he said.

Also called Bajo de Masinloc by Manila, the shoal is a triangle-shaped reef that is a rich fishing ground. 

One of the region’s most-contested maritime features, it has been effectively under the control of China since 2012. But a United Nations arbitration tribunal in 2016 had dismissed China’s sweeping claims over most of the South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal.

Beijing has refused to recognize the ruling, while the United States and other Western powers hailed it.

Instead of enforcing the ruling, Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte pivoted to Beijing in exchange for economic benefits.

In Manila on Thursday, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla dismissed China’s allegation that the Philippines had engaged in provocations by removing the floating barrier. 

“We are not provoking anything. We are just, we are asserting our rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which is being respected by the whole world, hopefully by everybody, including China in the future,” Remulla said.

He said the government’s legal experts are discussing building a legal complaint against China. 

“It’s a matter of choosing the complaint to be filed and where to file the complaint, that will be discussed properly,” Remulla said. 

‘Escalating aggression

Meanwhile, Henrylito Empoc, spokesman for a fishermen group in Masinloc town in Zambales, issued a statement condemning Chinese incursions into the West Philippine Sea, Manila’s name for its South China Sea territories.

“The Chinese militias and Chinese Coast Guard have been harassing and intimidating our fisherfolk since 2011. This has caused psycho-social impact,” Empoc said in the statement. 

“We call on the Philippine government to reclaim and regain possession of the West Philippine Sea and [its] exclusive economic zone.” 

China’s installation of the floating barrier followed incidents involving China Coast Guard ships and maritime militia harassing Philippine Coast Guard ships accompanying boats on a supply mission to Manila’s military outpost – the BRP Sierra Madre – in Ayungin Shoal.  

In August, the government said Chinese ships fired water cannons on ships accompanying one such mission. 

In Washington, a group of U.S. lawmakers on Thursday began an investigation into what it called China’s “escalating aggression” in the South China Sea.

The lawmakers are led by Rep. Young Kim, House foreign affairs committee chairwoman, who said China has long maintained “illegal claims” in the South China Sea, spreading propaganda such as the nine-dash line – which Beijing has expanded

The line is a boundary used by Beijing on Chinese maps to illustrate its expansive claims in the South China Sea.

“Across the South China Sea, China has illegally dredged nearly 3,200 acres of new land, some of which serve as military outposts and that have runways for military aircraft and isolated ‘research’ platforms that can port military grade vessels,” Kim said.  

“Congress must take the Chinese Communist Party aggression in the South China Sea seriously and ensure that our allied nations are getting the assurances from the administration that they need.”

A senior U.S. defense official who appeared before the foreign affairs committee said the Philippine decision to remove the barrier was a “bold step in defending their own sovereignty,” media reports said.

Earlier this week, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman downplayed the barrier’s removal.

“What the Philippines did looks like nothing more than self-amusement,” Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday. 

Since taking office in June 2022, Marcos appears to have embraced the U.S. and other democratic allies while shifting away from Duterte’s pivot to China, analysts have said. 

Marcos has granted the U.S. expanded access to more Philippine military bases and leaders from both countries have not ruled out more defense cooperation.



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