MANILA (REUTERS) – China has stationed several ships near a disputed atoll in the South China Sea, preventing Filipino fishermen from accessing traditional fishing grounds and raising tensions in the volatile region, Philippine officials said on Wednesday (March 2).
China had deployed up to seven ships to Quirino Atoll, also known as Jackson Atoll, said Eugenio Bito-onon Jr, the mayor of nearby Pagasa Island in the Spratly Islands.
The Spratlys are the most contested archipelago in the South China Sea, a resource-rich region and critical shipping lane linking North Asia to Europe, South Asia and the Middle East.
“This is very alarming, Quirino is on our path when we travel from Palawan to Pagasa. It is halfway and we normally stop there to rest,” Bito-onon Jr told Reuters. “I feel something different. The Chinese are trying to choke us by putting an imaginary checkpoint there. It is a clear violation of our right to travel, impeding freedom of navigation,” he said.
Fishermen told the mayor one Filipino boat had run aground in the area and was still there but was not being harassed by the Chinese vessels.
The Philippine military said it was trying to verify the presence of Chinese ships near Jackson Atoll, where a Chinese warship allegedly fired warning shots at Filipino fishermen in 2011.
“We know there are Chinese ships moving around the Spratly area,” spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told Reuters. “There are also ships around Second Thomas Shoal, so we want to make sure if the presence is permanent.”
Second Thomas Shoal is where the Philippine navy has been occupying and reinforcing a rusting ship that it ran aground in 1999 to bolster its claims to the disputed reef.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China’s Ministry of Transport had sent vessels to tow the grounded ship and they had since left the surrounding waters.
“To guarantee safety of navigation and of work conditions, China urged fishing vessels near the site to leave,” Hong said, adding that China had indisputable sovereignty over the atoll.
TENSIONS ON THE RISE
A military source from Palawan said a surveillance plane had seen four to five ships in the vicinity of Jackson Atoll last week. The source could not say if the ships were passing through or permanently stationed there because the area is close to Mischief Reef, where China is building an artificial island.
“There are no indications China will build structures or develop it into an island,” said the source, who was not authorised to speak to the media about the South China Sea.
The Philippines Star newspaper, which earlier reported the story, quoted an unidentified fisherman as saying Chinese boats chased them away when they tried to enter the area last week. “These gray and white Chinese ships, around four of them inside the lagoon, prevented us from entering our traditional fishing ground,” he said.
Along with China and the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on the waters, through which about US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) in trade is shipped every year.
Tensions in the region have been building recently, with the United States and others protesting against Beijing’s land reclamations, along with the recent deployment of surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets in the Paracel Islands.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned China on Tuesday (March 1) against what he called “aggressive” actions in the region, saying there would be “specific consequences” to militarisation of the South China Sea.
In response, Hong urged Washington on Wednesday (March 2) to “stop exaggerating and sensationalising” the issue.
For its part, Beijing has been angered by “freedom of navigation” air and sea patrols the United States has conducted near the islands it claims in the South China Sea and says it needs military facilities for its self defence.