The coastguard of the Philippines urged the country’s fishermen on Wednesday to keep operating at the disputed Scarborough Shoal and other sites in the South China Sea, pledging to step up patrols there despite an imposing Chinese presence.
Philippine vessels were unable to maintain a constant presence but were committed to protecting the rights of fishermen inside the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), coastguard spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela said.
“We’re going to increase patrols in Bajo de Masinloc and other areas where Filipino fishermen are,” he told DZRH radio, referring to the shoal, one of Asia’s most contested maritime features, by its Philippine name.
On Monday, the Philippine coastguard cut a 300-m (980-ft) floating barrier installed by China that blocked access to the Scarborough Shoal, an area Beijing has controlled for over a decade with coastguard ships and a fleet of large fishing vessels.
The Chinese coastguard late on Wednesday disputed the Philippine version of the events, saying the Chinese side had retrieved the barrier on Saturday after deploying it a day earlier when a Philippine vessel “illegally” entered the area.
“I would also like to reiterate once again. Huangyan Island is China’s inherent territory,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson at the Chinese foreign ministry, told a regular briefing on Wednesday, calling the shoal by its Chinese name.
Philippine Defence Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said the Philippines’ cutting of the cordon was not a provocation.
“We are reacting to their action,” he said during a senate hearing on Wednesday.
A vessel from the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources “illegally” entered the area on Sept. 22 and “rushed” into the lagoon of the shoal despite shouts of warnings, the Chinese coastguard said in a statement on Wednesday.
That prompted a “temporary” deployment of nets to block its passage, it said.
“Afterwards, (the Chinese coastguard) took the initiative to retrieve the net barrier on Sept. 23 and resumed a normal state of control. The so-called ‘dismantling’ of the net barrier by the Philippines is complete fabrication.”
The rocky, mid-sea outcrop is the site of numerous diplomatic rows. Both countries claim sovereignty over the shoal, a prime fishing spot about 200 km (124 miles) off the Philippines and 850 km (530 miles) from mainland China and its southern island of Hainan.
The shoal is close to shipping lanes that transport an estimated $3.4 trillion of annual commerce, and control of it is strategic for Beijing, which claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
Those claims complicate fisheries and offshore oil and gas activities by its Southeast Asian neighbours.
Coastguard official Tarriela said the Philippine fisheries bureau had successfully anchored a vessel just 300 m (980 ft) from the Scarborough Shoal’s lagoon, its closest point to the atoll since China seized it in 2012.
“The Scarborough Shoal is closer to the Philippines,” said fisherman Pepito Fabros who had come ashore in the province of Zambales between trips to sea.
“Why are they stopping us from entering?”