The Philippines protested strongly on Tuesday against Beijing's use of a water cannon on Filipino fishermen in the disputed waters of the Scarborough Shoal, warning the incident would escalate tensions.
Scarborough Shoal is a group of tiny, low-lying rocky islets off the east coast of Luzon, the main island in the Philippines. It is within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, but is claimed by Beijing, which calls it Huangyan Island. It is known in the Philippines as Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc.
Beijing’s charge d’affaires in Manila, Sun Xiangyang, was summoned on Tuesday to “strongly protest the efforts of China to prohibit Filipino fishermen from undertaking fishing activities in the Philippines’ Bajo de Masinloc”, said Raul Hernandez, the foreign ministry spokesman.
Hernandez said the fishermen were merely seeking shelter in the area due to inclement weather.
“We call on China to respect our sovereignty and rights of our fishermen in the area,” Hernandez said.
“These actions, these incidents, surely escalates the tension in the area. And this further threatens the peace and security and stability in the region.”
Beijing rebuffed the complaint, saying Chinese ships patrolled the region to protect China’s sovereignty and ensure “normal order”.
“China does not accept so-called representations or protests from the Philippines,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
“For foreign ships in these seas, Chinese ships have been carrying out necessary management appropriately and reasonably,” she added.
“We demand that the relevant country earnestly respect China’s sovereignty, and not provoke any new incidents.”
Since the beginning of the year, Beijing has required foreign fishing boats to get approval before entering waters that it claims for China.
On January 27, a Chinese coast guard tried to drive away Filipino fishermen from Scarborough Shoal by using a water cannon, General Emmanuel Bautista, head of the Philippine military said on Monday.
Beijing claims about 90 per cent of the South China Sea’s 3.5 million square kilometres of water. The sea provides 10 per cent of the global fish catch, carries US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade a year and its seabed is believed to be rich with energy reserves.
Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam also claim parts of the sea.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino said he would seek clarification from Beijing of “what this incident was all about”.
“We are not sure, at this point, if we can call it their standard operating procedure,” the president said. The Department of Foreign Affairs said there were nine harassment incidents in the same area last year.
Manila has urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to conclude a binding code of conduct with Beijing to avoid accidents and miscalculations in the disputed waters.
The Philippines has taken its dispute with Beijing to arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea but Beijing is refusing to participate in the case.
Beijing has rejected challenges to its sovereignty claims and accused the Philippines of illegally occupying Chinese islands in the seas and of provoking tension.
This month, the commander of the US navy said the United States would come to the aid of the Philippines in the event of conflict with Beijing.