Faced with China’s determination to exert control over a vast area of the South China Sea far from its mainland, the Philippine Coast Guard said Monday that it had taken matters into its own hands, taking down a Chinese barrier that had kept Filipino fishing boats at bay.
The Coast Guard released video of a diver cutting through the ropes that kept the barriers in place at the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both the Philippines and China. The maritime obstacles could then be seen being hoisted out of the water.
“The barrier posed a hazard to navigation, a clear violation of international law,” the Philippines said in a statement. “It also hinders the conduct of fishing and livelihood activities of Filipino fisherfolk.”
With tensions already rising in the South China Sea, it was unclear how Beijing might respond. But China has made clear its intent to militarize the waters through which one-third of global ocean trade passes.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said the shoal and its adjacent waters are “China’s inherent territory,” over which Beijing “has indisputable sovereignty,” The Associated Press reported.
The Philippine Coast Guard said Monday that it had acted at the direction of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who was elected last year.
The Philippines is not the only country in the region that is tangling with China over fishing rights and territorial claims. Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have also had conflicts.
The United States has no direct territorial claims of its own, but it has made its own interests clear, including the freedom of navigation. On Monday, President Biden hosted the leaders of 18 Pacific Island nations at the White House in another sign of the growing regional competition for influence between Washington and Beijing.
The waters of the South China Sea were long dominated by the U.S. fleet, but as the Chinese military flexes its muscles there, and as its Navy and Coast Guard continue to gain strength, concern has grown about the possibility of a superpower showdown there.
Already, more than 900 miles from their mainland, the Chinese have established a military base on Mischief Reef, off the Philippine island of Palawan, complete with radar domes and a runway that can handle fighter jets.
An international tribunal has determined that the area does not belong to China, but with armed Chinese vessels out in force, Filipinos who have fished the waters for generations have been forced to stand down.