China Fires Water Cannons at Philippine Fishermen

A top Philippines military officer said China’s Coast Guard fired water cannons at fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal.

On Monday the Chief of Staff of the Philippines Armed Forces accused Chinese maritime vessels of firing water cannons at Philippine fishermen to drive them away from the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

According to multiple media reports, General Emmanuel Bautista told an audience at the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines on Monday that “The Chinese coast guard tried to drive away Filipino fishing vessels to the extent of using water cannon.” He said that the incident first occurred on January 27 but that China still maintains armed maritime vessels at the Scarborough Shoal.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson did not specifically address Bautista’s accusations when asked about his comments. However, in response to a question from reporters in Beijing, the spokesperson did say: “I would like to re-emphasize that China has indisputable sovereignty over relevant waters and China’s maritime surveillance fleet are carrying out routine patrols in relevant waters.”

Both China and the Philippines claim sovereignty over the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, although Chinese maritime agencies seized control over the waters following a standoff in early 2012. That move has led to a sharp deterioration in Chinese-Filipino relations ever since, with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III recently comparing China’s South China Sea policy to Hitler’s invasion of the Czechoslovakia in the years prior to WWII.

Manila has pursued a multi-faceted strategy to counter the perceived threat from China, including initiating a modest military modernization program aimed at achieving a “minimum credible defense.” It has also pursued legal action by filing a complaint with a UN-backed tribunal challenging the basis of China’s large territorial claims, known as its “nine-dash-line” claims.

The Philippines has also been seeking to boost its defense cooperation with countries like Japan and the United States. Manila is currently in negotiations with Washington over restoring U.S. access to the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines.

In recent weeks the U.S. has lent greater political support to the Philippines’ challenge of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Indeed, at the same conference that General Emmanuel Bautista spoke at on Monday, the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg, seemed to go further than his colleagues in challenging China’s nine-dash-line.

According to Rappler, Goldberg told the forum at the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines that “there is no such thing as 9-dash line [sic].” He continued:  “We do not believe that the 9-dash line claim passes the legal test for determining or resolving disputes over South China Sea matters.”

If the report is accurate, Goldberg’s remarks appear to go further than other U.S. officials have in recent weeks in challenging China’s sovereignty claims. As discussed in various blog posts, as well as The Diplomat’s most recent podcast, the U.S. has been taking an increasing strident position against China in the South China Sea.

Most notably, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Danny Russel, told Congress last month that “Any Chinese claim to maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law. China could highlight its respect for international law by clarifying or adjusting its claim to bring it into accordance with international law of the sea.”

This broke with past U.S. statements which merely emphasized the importance of resolving disputes peacefully in accordance with international law, while usually steering clear of singling out any one nation as possibly having claims that were inconsistent with international law.

Still, Russel’s comments merely asked China for greater clarification of the basis for its expansive claims of sovereignty. Goldberg’s reported remarks appear to explicitly dismiss the “nine-dash-line” claim as illegal. However, the context of the remarks were not clear from the report, and Goldberg may have been suggesting that the “nine-dash-line” is not in and of itself legal, and thus must be backed up by claims to land features. That would place it in line with Russel’s earlier comments to the U.S. Congress.

Attempts to contact the U.S. embassy in Manila for clarification have so far been unsuccessful.