Philippine authorities are working to confirm reports that Chinese Coast Guard vessels harassed and drove away Filipino fishermen at Union Bank in the Spratly group in the South China Sea. According to early reports, Chinese Coast Guard vessels fired warning shots to deny fishermen access to disputed waters. The location of the incident, which occurred on Thursday, is close to Gaven Reef, which is home to one of China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratly group.
The Philippine military was cautious in assessing the incident early on, describing “alleged harassment” by the Chinese vessels. Others have been less charitable to China. For example, Rep. Gary Alejano, a Philippine congressman, condemned “in the strongest terms” the “aggressive acts” of the Chinese Coast Guard in the incident, according to the Inquirer. Gen. Eduardo Año, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, has said the incident is under investigation.
A Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson meanwhile noted that Manila would seek to raise the issue with China through bilateral channels should the incident be verified. “With the current positive momentum in PH-China relations, we have mechanisms in place where the Philippines can raise such issues. This includes the bilateral consultation mechanism, which is meant to tackle issues of concern in the West PH Sea,” DFA Spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar told reporters, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
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The incident comes two weeks after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called on Philippine troops to move to occupy unoccupied features in the South China Sea. Though China and the Philippines have seen a broader bilateral rapprochement since Duterte’s inauguration last year, the latest incident emphasizes that Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels continue to exercise influence in disputed waters, including at Scarborough Shoal.
Last year, in July, Manila saw an international tribunal rule in its favor and against Beijing in a 2013 case concerning maritime entitlements and the status of features in the South China Sea. The arbitral tribunal’s award also found China’s capacious nine-dash line claim invalid under international law. Both China and the Philippines have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Earlier in March, Chinese oceanographic survey activities at Benham Rise, an underwater plateau east of the Philippine island of Luzon, in the Philippine Sea, drew scrutiny. China ultimately said it respect the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the area and Duterte said the incident had been “blown out of proportion.” Nevertheless, the reaction in the Philippines demonstrated continuing public opinion sensitivities regarding Chinese maritime activities in disputed and settled waters alike.