MARYLAND, US: Beijing is protesting the Philippine Armed Forces’ removal of a floating barrier installed by Chinese forces to block access to the contested Scarborough Shoal.
Filipino Coast Guardsmen proceeded to dismantle the barrier, located at the southeast entrance of the shoal and estimated to be about 984 feet long, after receiving instruction to do so from national leaders and Philippine President BongBong Marcos. The barrier was discovered last Friday by the Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources during a routine patrol near the shoal.
Philippine Coast Guard Commodore Jay Tarriela stated in a press release that the barrier “posed a hazard to navigation” and was “a clear violation of international law.”
Scarborough Shoal, also known in the Philippines as Bajo de Masinloc and Panatag Shoal, has been the site of several confrontations between Philippine and Chinese maritime forces, as both lay claim to the feature. China Coast Guard and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia vessels have maintained an almost constant presence at Scarborough since a 20212 confrontation there.
Filipino fisherman Mang Arnel attempted to outrun two China Coast Guard rigid inflatable boats to get into the shoal. While unsuccessful, he told reporters observing the interaction “I’m not scared, I just laugh at them. I am just annoying them.”
In response to the Philippine Coast Guard’s actions, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs advised the Philippines to not “make provocation or stir up trouble.”
Even though Scarborough lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, it is claimed by China as part of its vast nine-dash line claim. In 2016, however, an international tribunal ruled that Beijing’s nine-dash line territorial claims were invalid. In a recently released map, China expanded the line to ten dashes.
Jeffrey Ordaniel, director of maritime programs at the Pacific Forum, told USNI News that while China has maintained an occupation, it has yet to establish control of the shoal.
“On the radio challenges issued by PRC vessels, the Philippine Coast Guard rightly asserted Philippine sovereignty. Despite the near-constant presence of Chinese vessels in the shoal since the standoff in 2012, the Philippines maintains that it has sovereignty over the land feature. Perhaps, this is also an opportunity to correct the widely held notion that Manila lost the shoal in 2012. The fact is, it only introduced Chinese presence but not effective control” said Ordaniel.
Ordaniel also highlighted that the 2016 arbitration award made it clear that all fishermen should have the right to access the shoal, regardless of their nationality, stating any country “that prevents them [fishermen] from doing subsistence fishing in the Scarborough Shoal violates UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas] and international law, in general.”
Filipino and Vietnamese fishermen are regularly harassed by Chinese maritime forces in the South China Sea, with one incident in August between the China Coast Guard and Vietnamese fishermen resulting in injuries to the Vietnamese crew.
Ordaniel thinks removing the barrier at Scarborough signifies “a greater recognition in the Philippines that some risk-taking or controlled escalation is required to effectively push back against PRC’s gray zone coercion.”
Within the last year, Manila’s renewed strategy against China in the South China Sea has seen the Philippines expose China’s activities. From catching Chinese maritime forces in the act, this approach has brought increased awareness of these issues, resulting in increased domestic support and international backing.
Collin Koh, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told USNI News that he expects China to maintain its presence or even “beef up” its forces in response to more assertive Philippine actions at Scarborough. Because of Manila’s attempts to record every action taken, however, he also does not expect an escalation by China.
“We may also expect the Chinese to generally ramp up presence using its various maritime forces, including maritime militia, across WPS simply to signal displeasure.
From enhanced defense cooperation with the United States, to the first trilateral coast guard exercise with the Japan Coast Guard and U.S. Coast Guard and a new strategic partnership with Australia, Manila has been strengthening its security ties within the past year.