A FILIPINO fishing boat captain protested on Tuesday, January 23, 2024, the Chinese coast guard’s aggression in the disputed South China Sea, where he asserted that Chinese officers drove him and his men away from a disputed shoal and ordered them to dump their catch in the sea.
The face-to-face confrontation on January 12, which Joely Saligan and his men reported to Manila’s coast guard after returning from the voyage, is testing efforts by China and the Philippines to deescalate tensions around a potential Asian flashpoint.
At a January 17 meeting in Shanghai, Beijing and Manila agreed to take steps to ease tensions after a year of high-seas confrontations between their ships in one of the world's busiest seas. The hostilities have sparked fears of a major armed conflict that could involve Washington, Manila’s longtime treaty ally.
The fishermen, led by Saligan, reported to the Philippine coast guard that Chinese coast guard personnel drove them away from the disputed Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines and ordered them to dump their catch of fish and seashells.
The confrontation happened on a coral outcrop that juts out of the sea like an islet at low tide. Saligan and his men took a dinghy from their mother boat and went to collect seashells and fish for food. However, they said five Chinese coast guard personnel, three of them armed with steel batons, followed by boat, landed on the islet and ordered the fishermen to leave immediately.
One Chinese officer tried to confiscate the cellphone of a Filipino fisherman, who pushed away the officer’s hand. Both sides were documenting the confrontation with video cameras or cellphones, Saligan said.
The Chinese did not speak and used hand gestures, he said.
“They looked angry. They wanted us to return our catch to the sea,” Saligan told a group of journalists in Manila. “That’s inhuman because that was food which people should not be deprived of.”
Saligan said he decided to dump some of their seashells and fish in the sea and returned to his mother boat, the F/V Vhrayle, to prevent the dispute from escalating.
Chinese officials did not immediately comment on Saligan’s statements. In past disputes over the Scarborough Shoal, Beijing has asserted China’s sovereignty and the right to defend the fishing atoll from encroachments.
Philippine coast guard spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela said the written statements and video submitted by Saligan and his men have been validated as accurate by the coast guard. A report will be submitted to a multi-agency government group dealing with the territorial disputes for possible actions, including the filing of a new diplomatic protest against China.
The Philippine coast guard remained confident, however, that the agreement by China and the Philippines to lower tensions would “have a positive impact” and foster a peaceful resolution of the disputes, Tarriela said.
Chinese and Philippine coast guard ships engaged in a series of alarmingly tense hostilities last year mostly off the Second Thomas Shoal, another hotly contested area in the South China Sea. The Philippine government protested the Chinese coast guard’s use of water cannon, a military-grade laser and dangerous blocking maneuvers that had caused minor collisions off the Philippine-occupied shoal.
The United States has warned that it is obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under an armed attack, including in the South China Sea. China has repeatedly warned of unspecified circumstances if the US and its allies continue to meddle in the disputes.
China took control of the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 after a standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships, prompting Manila to bring the dispute to international arbitration. A United Nations-backed tribunal ruled in 2016 that China's expansive claims in the South China Sea on historical grounds were invalid and that Beijing had violated the right of Filipinos to fish in the shoal.
China refused to participate in the arbitration, rejected its outcome and continues to defy it. (AP)