The Philippines yesterday protested China’s alleged installation of a “floating barrier” at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, claiming that it has prevented Filipino fishermen from entering the area.
In a statement posted on X (formerly Twitter), Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela stated that the coast guard and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) “strongly” condemned the installation of the 300-meter barrier, they said were discovered by PCG and BFAR personnel aboard a Philippine vessel during a routine maritime patrol on Friday.
According to Tarriela, three rigid-hull inflatable boats from the China Coast Guard and a Chinese maritime militia service boat installed the barrier when the Philippine vessel arrived. The Chinese boats issued 15 radio challenges and accused the Philippine ship and fishermen of violating international and China’s laws, before moving away “upon realizing the presence of media personnel onboard the BFAR vessel,” he said.
A video released by the PCG showed a line of white circular floats that were seemingly anchoring a submerged barrier across the southeast entrance to the central lagoon on Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines refers to as Bajo de Masinloc.
Tarriela said that the barrier had prevented fishermen from nearby Luzon from entering the shoal, “depriving them of their fishing and livelihood activities.”
“The PCG will continue to work closely with all concerned government agencies to address these challenges, uphold our maritime rights and protect our maritime domains,” Tarriela said.
Scarborough Shoal lies around 198 kilometers due west of Luzon, well within the Philippines internationally recognized exclusive economic zone (EEZ). But the triangular feature fell under China’s control after a 10-week stand-off with the Philippines in 2012, after which it installed a similar makeshift barrier in order to impede access to the shoal’s central lagoon, an act that prompted the administration of then President Benigno Aquino III to file a lengthy legal complaint with an arbitral tribunal in The Hague, challenging the legality of China’s maritime claims. In 2016, the tribunal ruled that Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claim had no standing under international law, a ruling that China has unsurprisingly rejected.
The installation of the barrier is just the latest in a string of incidents in the South China Sea that have strained Philippine-China relations this year. This has included a number of aggressive Chinese actions to prevent the Philippine resupply of the small force stationed on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands, one last month involving a high-pressure water cannon and another in February involving the use of a military-grade laser. Subsequent resupply missions have been successful, but have been shadowed closely by China Coast Guard vessels.
Last week, the Armed Forces of the Philippines also raised the alarm over what they suspect to be the illegal harvesting of corals by Chinese maritime militia vessels at Rozul Reef, within the Philippines’ EEZ.
Whether Chinese “gray zone” actions have become more frequent over the past months, or whether they have simply been better publicized, remains unclear. Unmatched for resources and unable to confront Chinese vessels directly, the PCG has adopted a strategy of inviting journalists and photographers on its routine patrols, which has resulted in a spike in the domestic and international coverage of the recent series of confrontations – including a remarkable AFP photo of a Philippine fishing boat streaking across the water close to Scarborough Shoal, against the ominous backdrop of a giant China Coast Guard vessel.