China and the Philippines verbally clashed over the South China Sea this week, with Manila accusing China of harassing both fishermen and a military patrol in the disputed maritime region.
On Tuesday, the Philippines said that the Chinese Coast Guard used water cannons on a group of Filipino fishermen at Scarborough Shoal, damaging some of the fishermen’s boats. Hong Lei, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said the Chinese vessels were performing “guard duty in waters off the Huangyan Island [the Chinese name for Scarborough Shoal] to maintain the normal order of these waters in accordance with the law.” Hong added that Manila should “show earnest respect for China’s territorial sovereignty, step up its regulation and education of the fishermen and stop all actions infringing upon China’s territorial sovereignty, and rights and interests.”
The Philippines effectively lost access to the Scarborough Shoal after a tense standoff between Chinese and Philippines vessels in April 2012. Since then, China’s Coast Guard has maintained tight control over the area, but Philippine fishermen still attempt to reach what they claim as their traditional fishing grounds.
The plot thickened on Thursday, when the Philippines’ fisheries bureau said Chinese Coast Guard officers had robbed Philippine fishermen in a separate incident near Scarborough Shoal on April 11. The fishermen “were threatened and pointed [at] with a gun before the Chinese forcibly took their fishes,” the bureau said in an incident report sent to AFP. The report also indicated that the Chinese sailors destroyed fishing equipment and other materials on the boats.
Asked about those claims, Hong said that the “accusations made by the Philippine side are inconsistent with the fact[s].” He then repeated China’s argument that its vessels in the area “perform guard duties and keep order in waters off the Huangyan Island in accordance with the law.”
In a more serious incident, a Chinese frigate warned away a Philippine Air Force plane while the latter was on a military patrol. A Philippine air force official told Reuters, “An Air Force Fokker plane was challenged by a Chinese frigate near Subi Reef, aiming a powerful light as it flew over the disputed area.” Another officer said that the Chinese vessel also warned the Philippine plane to leave the area in a radio message.
Subi Reef, occupied by China, is one of several disputed islets where Beijing is conducting land reclamation activities. Subi Reef is of particular concern to Manila as it is only 25 km away from Thitu Island, where the Philippines have their only airstrip in the Spratlys.
Hong also waved aside this incident in a press conference, saying China has “verified that the relevant report is not true.” For one thing, Hong said, “There is no such thing of [sic] powerful light warning as mentioned in the report.” But Hong did verify that Chinese soldiers had warned off Philippine aircraft. “[P]lanes from the Philippines have conducted multiple intrusions into the area above waters near China’s islands and reefs over recent days,” Hong said. “The Chinese garrison there took actions in accordance with the law by asking them to leave through radio.”
The rash of run-ins in disputed territories – whether between coast guard and fishermen or, more worryingly, between military vessels and aircraft – serves as a further reminder of the risks of an accident or miscalculation on the ground leading to tragedy and possible armed conflict. For now, however, the war is being waged with words, as each sides airs accusations and counter-accusations.