Philippines Coastguard Encourages Fishermen to Operate in Disputed South China Sea Despite Chinese Presence
Maritime Dispute Escalates in the South China Sea
The Philippine Coastguard has called upon the nation’s fishermen to persist in their operations at the disputed Scarborough Shoal and other regions in the South China Sea. This comes despite the significant presence of Chinese forces in these areas. The Coastguard has pledged to amplify patrols in these regions to safeguard the rights of Filipino fishermen within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This commitment is echoed by spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela, despite the Coastguard’s challenges in maintaining a constant presence.
Earlier in the week, the Coastguard dismantled a 300-metre floating barrier installed by China, which restricted access to the Scarborough Shoal. China has dominated this area for over a decade with its coastguard ships and a substantial fleet of fishing vessels. In response to the removal of the barrier, China’s foreign ministry advised Manila to evade provocations.
Scarborough Shoal: A Contentious Maritime Feature
The Scarborough Shoal, a prime fishing spot located about 200 km off the Philippines and 850 km from mainland China, is a disputed maritime feature claimed by both countries. Defence Secretary Gilbert Teodoro clarified that the removal of the barrier by the Philippines was not a provocation but a response to China’s action of blocking their fishers.
The proximity of the shoal to shipping lanes that transport an estimated $3.4 trillion of annual commerce makes it strategically important for Beijing, which claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. However, these claims complicate fisheries and offshore oil and gas activities by its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Fishermen Caught in the Crossfire
The decision of the Coastguard to increase patrols comes as relations sour, with the Philippines becoming more assertive over China’s coastguard conduct in its EEZ and strengthening its military ties with its ally, the United States. Fishermen like Pepito Fabros, who operates close to the shoal, are left questioning why they are being barred from entering an area so close to their home country.
China-Philippine Relations Strained over South China Sea
The escalation of the maritime dispute in the South China Sea and the increasingly assertive presence of China’s coastguard ships in the Philippines’ EEZ have strained relations between the two nations. Despite the Philippines’ pivot away from the US towards Beijing under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea remain a potential flashpoint in China-Philippine relations.
China’s sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea, coupled with the sea’s estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, have antagonized competing claimants including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. China’s claims threaten important maritime passages facilitating trade and movement of naval forces, known as sea lines of communication (SLOCs), thereby raising concerns over potential military escalation resulting from the territorial dispute.
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