MANILA • Chinese coast guard vessels prevented a Philippine nationalist group from planting a Philippine flag on a rocky South China Sea outcrop, the group said yesterday, in the wake of the latest territorial stand-off between the two nations.
The incident between the coast guard and the Kalayaan Atin Ito (Freedom It's Ours) group took place at the disputed Scarborough Shoal on Sunday, just as foreign ministers from South-east Asian countries and China prepared for a meeting in Kunming to discuss territorial rows in the hotly contested waters.
Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea and the move by the Filipino nationalists comes as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague prepares to deliver a ruling on a complex case brought by Manila that could dent Beijing's sweeping sovereignty claim.
"They refused to allow us to get near Scarborough Shoal," Ms Joy Ban-eg, leader of Kalayaan Atin Ito, told reporters. "There was a stand-off until we decided to leave."
Ms Ban-eg said 15 Filipinos and an American joined the 16-hour voyage to the Scarborough Shoal to mark the Philippines' 118th Independence Day and to find out if local fishermen could freely go there.
The shoal, seized by China after a three-month stand-off in 2012, is a bone of contention for the Philippines and its President-elect, Mr Rodrigo Duterte, who has vowed not to give way. The attempt to plant the flag comes after Mr Duterte himself pledged during his election campaign to do the same, but on China's man-made islands in the Spratlys, using a jet ski.
The wooden-hulled fishing boat came close to the shoal when China's coast guard blocked the group and ordered it to go back to the Philippines, the group said.
Five Filipinos jumped into the water and tried to swim to the shoal but were chased by Chinese sailors on rubber dinghies, who sprayed them with water and tried to take their cameras and bag, which contained a Philippine flag.
Beijing stressed that the shoal belonged to China. "We urge the Philippines to respect China's sovereignty," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular briefing in Beijing.