The Philippines’ biggest warship, obtained from the U.S. last year, is locked in a standoff with Chinese vessels over fishing in the South China Sea, increasing tensions in disputed waters rich in oil and gas deposits.
Philippine personnel attempting to arrest Chinese fishermen aboard eight boats on the Scarborough Shoal were blocked by two marine surveillance ships, the foreign affairs department in Manila said in an e-mailed statement today. The Chinese embassy responded with a communique calling on the Philippines to cease “illegal” activities and to leave the area.
The latest incident comes as the Philippines tries to build support among Southeast Asian nations for a common position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China claims most of the waters as its own and used patrol boats last year to disrupt hydrocarbon survey activities, chasing away a ship working for Forum Energy Plc (FEP) off the Philippines and slicing cables of a survey vessel doing work for Vietnam.
“It’s the law of physics: two competing parties cannot occupy the same space at the same time,” said Carlyle Thayer, a politics professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra. “The danger now that this has been publicized is growing nationalism in the Philippines that leads to greater resolve for the Philippines to take action.”
The Chinese fishermen were first spotted in the area on April 8, according to the Philippine statement, which referred to the waters as “an integral part of Philippine territory.” The Philippines is seeking a diplomatic resolution while “we’re examining all our options,” Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters today.
The Philippine ship on April 10 blocked the entrance to a lagoon where 12 fishing boats sought shelter in rough weather, according to an e-mailed statement from the Chinese embassy in Manila.
“Two Chinese Marine Surveillance ships are in this area fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese national maritime rights and interests,” embassy spokesman Hua Zhang said in the statement. Hua called on the Philippines to “stop immediately their illegal activities and leave this area.”
Both sides said they had lodged diplomatic protests.
The U.S. has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines and has boosted military relations with Vietnam in recent years. Both countries reject China’s map of the South China Sea as a basis for joint development of oil and gas resources and have pushed ahead with exploration work, leading to more confrontations as China expands the use of marine surveillance vessels.
The South China Sea contains oil reserves that may total as much as 213 billion barrels, according to Chinese studies cited in 2008 by the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The Philippines said in January it’s ready to host a summit to help resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Gregorio del Pilar
Originally launched in 1967 as a U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton class cutter, the ship was sent to the Philippines last year and renamed the BRP Gregorio del Pilar. The vessel “is deemed as an icon of the restoration of the capability upgrade of the armed forces,” according to a Philippine army statement.
The Philippines spent $1.5 billion on defense in 2010, compared with China’s $114 billion, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The Scarborough Shoal is within the Philippines’ 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, today’s statement from the country’s foreign ministry said.
Other nations have also clashed with Chinese fishing boats in recent months. A South Korean Coast Guard officer died in December after being stabbed by a Chinese sailor during an operation to seize an illegal fishing boat in the Yellow Sea.
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