(Bloomberg) -- The Philippines is taking steps to regain control of a shoal in South China Sea which Chinese vessels have guarded for more than a decade, according to its coast guard spokesman, stepping up rhetoric on territorial claims as Beijing warned against provocation.
“Since the new administration took office, we have already strategized how we can take control once again of Bajo de Masinloc, especially the lagoon,” Philippine Coast Guard Commodore Jay Tarriela said in an interview on Tuesday with ABS-CBN News Channel, using the Philippines’ name for Scarborough Shoal.
The Philippine Coast Guard on Monday said it removed a floating barrier that obstructed the southeast entrance of the shoal which it said was placed by China. Scarborough Shoal — a chain of reefs and rocks which Beijing has effectively controlled since 2012 after weekslong standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels — has become the latest flashpoint between the two countries.
“China’s resolve in safeguarding sovereignty and maritime rights and interests over Huangyan Island is unwavering,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday, referring to the shoal. “We advise the Philippines not to make provocations or seek troubles.”
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s administration has been ramping up efforts to defend his country’s sovereignty in parts of the waters that China asserts mostly as its own, a claim refuted by an international arbitration panel in the Hague in 2016. Marcos succeeded Rodrigo Duterte last year and has strengthened Philippines’ defense ties with the US.
Tarriela and his crew have been publicizing the encounters with Chinese vessels in contested waters including incidents this year of Filipino ships being targeted by military-grade laser and water cannon. He said on Monday that their move to take out the barrier in the shoal was in compliance with the order of Marcos and National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano.
On Tuesday, Tarriela said the strategy to regain the shoal and sustain their patrol is supported by the Armed Forces and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, an agency under the agriculture department that Marcos heads. Officials of the Philippines’ foreign affairs department and the National Security Council who were contacted to confirm whether Tarriela’s latest remarks constitute government policy haven’t replied.
The Southeast Asian nation’s coast guard and fishing vessels have been trying to come closer to the shoal for the past months, said Tarriela. “We will be able to sustain this patrol, with the end goal of allowing Filipino fishermen to be able to go inside the lagoon,” he said.
Other Philippine officials also weighed in on the issue, though not in direct response to Tarriela’s statement in the ABS-CBN News Channel interview.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo told reporters that the nation seeks to resolve its differences with China. “Our aim is to manage disputes peacefully, and through the rule of law and international law,” he said.
“We are pursuing all possible avenues to protect our national interest because at the end of the day that is what is most important, the national interest of the Philippines,” Jonathan Malaya, assistant director general of the National Security Council told local radio.
The shoal’s lagoon had been a traditional fishing area for Filipino and Vietnamese seafarers before China asserted its dominance. Meanwhile, Vietnam also protested China’s installation of two automatic vessel identification stations in the Paracel Islands, saying it’s a violation of its sovereignty.
--With assistance from James Mayger.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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