SOUTH CHINA SEA ROW

Chinese coastguard accused of firing on Philippine fishing boat

Attack alleged to have taken place in disputed area of the South China Sea

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 April, 2017, 4:09pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 April, 2017, 4:09pm

A group of Filipino fishermen have accused China’s coastguard of shooting at their vessel in disputed South China Sea waters, the Philippine authorities said Friday.

Philippine officials said they were investigating the reported attack on the Princess Johann boat, which the crew said occurred near a Chinese-occupied section of the Spratly archipelago on March 27.

There were no casualties during the incident, authorities added.

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“[Princess Johann] was reportedly fired upon seven times by a Chinese speedboat with seven Chinese coastguards on board,” a Philippine Coast Guard statement said.

The armed speedboat approached the Filipino vessel after it dropped anchor about 3.7 km off the Chinese side of the Union Banks atoll, it said.

“The crew hid and eventually cut their anchor line and fled the area,” the statement added.

Representatives at the Chinese embassy in Manila could not be reached for comment on Friday.

If confirmed the incident would be the first hostile episode in nearly a year involving the two countries, which have seen warming relations since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in mid-2016.

Both the Philippine coastguard and military are investigating the incident.

“[The Union Banks] is located inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone,” military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea grants coastal states exclusive rights to develop and exploit natural resources in the waters that extend up to 370 km off their coasts.

But China claims most of the South China Sea and in recent years has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands that can house military facilities.

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Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the Spratlys, either wholly or in part.

Reversing the course set by predecessor Benigno Aquino, Duterte has sought to improve his nation’s relations with Beijing by adopting a non-confrontational approach over their competing claims in the strategically vital waters.

Since then, Duterte said China has allowed Filipinos to fish in waters around the Scarborough Shoal, another outcrop in the South China Sea that Beijing seized in 2012 after a stand-off with the Philippine Navy.

The Philippine defence secretary and military chief of staff visited a Philippine-occupied island in the South China Sea on Friday.

The trip led by Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on an air force C-130 aircraft to the island Filipinos call Pag-asa is likely to infuriate China.

President Rodrigo Duterte has said China dissuaded him from flying to the island, also known internationally as Thitu, to raise his country’s flag when the Philippines celebrates its Independence Day on June 12.

“So because of our friendship with China and because we value your friendship, we will not, I will not go there to raise the Philippine flag,” he said in a speech last week in Saudi Arabia. He said he may send his son instead.

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Lorenzana planned to inspect a dirt runway on the island in the Spratlys chain of islands, reefs and atolls that has been partly eroded and have lunch with Filipino troops and residents in a fishing village on the island.

The government plans to repair the 1.2 km-long runway to allow more flights and improve safety. It plans to fortify small buildings on the island and eight much smaller reefs and atolls occupied by Filipino forces in the far-flung region.

With Lorenzana were the military chief of staff and other military top brass with about 40 journalists on a trip that may highlight the territorial disputes a week before Duterte hosts an annual regional summit in Manila that is expected to spotlight the South China Sea conflicts.

Additional reporting by Associated Press