Flashpoints | South Asia

Report: Chinese Warship Warned Commercial Vessel Away From Scarborough Shoal

A late-September incident underscores threats to commercial free navigation in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Ankit Panda
Report: Chinese Warship Warned Commercial Vessel Away From Scarborough Shoal
Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

The Philippine-based independent news outlet Rappler reported new evidence of an incident between a Filipino commercial vessel a purported Chinese warship in disputed waters in the South China Sea late last week.

According to the report, which includes readings from the commercial vessel’s Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS), the Chinese warship warned the vessel away. According to the vessel’s captain, Manolo Ebora, the incident occurred on September 30 this year.

“The Liberia-flagged, Greek-owned crude oil tanker Green Aura was transiting from Nongyao, Thailand, on its way to Longkou, China, when Ebora, a Philippine Navy reservist with the rank of lieutenant commander, decided to steer the commercial ship near Scarborough Shoal off Zambales,” Rappler notes.

At that point, a Chinese warship made contact with the Green Aura, when it had come within 6 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, long a flashpoint between the Philippines and China. In 2012, the two countries entered a protracted standoff over the Shoal, which led to Manila ultimately filing a case to a Hague-based tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in 2013.

The Chinese vessel — identifying itself as a “naval warship,” according to Ebora — then asked the Green Aura to alter course. “The crew on the Chinese vessel wanted the Green Aura to stay 10 nautical miles away from the shoal as it sailed northeast in the direction of Bolinao, Pangasinan,” Rappler notes.

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Supposed non-interference with commercial freedom of navigation in the South China Sea has long been a mainstay of Chinese talking points on why the United States should butt out of the region and why Southeast Asian claimant states along the littoral have little to fear.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels have been spotted within a few nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal in the past. In June, Philippine authorities reported that a PLAN warship was seen within 7 and 12 nautical miles of the disputed feature.

Scarborough Shoal is located in the South China Sea, 120 nautical miles off the Philippines’ island of Luzon. In 2016, a Hague-based arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration decided in Manila’s favor in the 2013 case regarding fishing rights at the shoal.

The tribunal decided that China had “through the operation of its official vessels at Scarborough Shoal from May 2012 onwards, unlawfully prevented Filipino fishermen from engaging in traditional fishing at Scarborough Shoal.” The tribunal made no finding on the sovereignty of the feature, however.

The Chinese government disregarded the tribunal’s award, which was delivered in July 2016. Beijing did not formally participate in the legal proceedings. Since July 2016, the government of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines has not pressed the 2016 arbitral tribunal award and instead pursued economic and diplomatic rapprochement with Beijing.