Written by Staff Writer, CNN Written by Staff Writer, CNN
Chinese coast guard vessels armed with water cannons sprayed a Philippine fishing boat with water before boarding, according to video posted on social media site Weibo.
The incident took place in Scarborough Shoal, a group of artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea last year, a Philippine fishing boat saw.
The fishing boat managed to escape before being intercepted, according to the footage, which was posted by a Weibo user, and saw about four Chinese coast guard vessels, two fisheries patrol boats and the coast guard marine patrol ship.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said Monday evening it had confirmed the incident with the Philippines Coast Guard and military, according to Philippine news site CNN Philippines.
The Asian neighbors have been at loggerheads over the disputed South China Sea, drawing the ire of the United States and Western governments for militarizing the strategic region.
“The presence of Chinese coast guard ships off the coast of Zambales province is inappropriate and illegal,” a Philippine government official, who did not want to be named, told CNN Philippine.
“We have already alerted the Philippine military and coast guard to assume operations to protect Philippine vessels and ground personnel from the Chinese coast guard boats in the East Philippine Sea,” said the official.
The incident comes days after the Philippines filed a legal challenge to China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, arguing the Scarborough Shoal belonged to the country.
“The East Philippine Sea is a small island chain with exclusive economic zones including South China Sea waters and Japan also has its own territorial sea,” analyst Damien Maloney, from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies told CNN.
“This situation has been the source of serious tension between the Philippines and China over the years.”
The Philippine claims the Scarborough Shoal, which is located in the East Philippine Sea, directly northeast of the South China Sea.
A January 2008 Chinese incursion in the area led to one of the worst maritime standoffs in recent years, with Chinese naval officials firing live ammunition into the water in what local officials described as an “anti-pirate” operation.
The Philippines has held regular military drills in the Scarborough Shoal since 2009 as part of efforts to deter possible Chinese military intrusion into their island chains.
The rise of artificial islands
China has repeatedly asserted that the Scarborough Shoal is a part of its territory. The country claims nine out of the 12 Philippine-claimed islands and reefs in the South China Sea, including the Scarborough Shoal.
There are some 78 claimants to the South China Sea.
According to a study published in March 2018, by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the majority of the region’s artificial islands are built on submerged reefs.
Dozens of Asian nations have conducted deepwater marine military exercises, large air force exercises and surface and subsea drills, as China has increased its naval presence and readiness in the area.
According to Maloney, China’s rapid development and building of artificial islands has “gutted” the South China Sea.
“China is militarizing the region by the middle of next year,” he said.
In the past, the Southeast Asian nations have viewed the islands as potentially valuable trade routes, rather than as potential military threats.
This has been a key focus of the disputed countries as they negotiate over the specifics of a two-year-old ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus Meeting and Annual Ministerial Meeting Plus Conference.
Maloney, a Singaporean national, says it’s “understandable” that the Chinese were skeptical about coming to negotiations, since no discussions have been held between China and other ASEAN members over maritime defense issues.
However, he says the fear isn’t that China will seize the disputed islands, but that Chinese military would be able to swiftly move back if disputes were to flare up.
“There was an incident in 2015 where the Philippines’ navy moved in on one of the Chittagong anchorage islands (just north of the Philippines) to forcibly retake the island from Chinese marines, but the Chinese military came back and fired gunshots. I don’t think this is something that China would do now.”
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