Chinese-installed floating barrier heats up tension in West Philippine Sea

Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal, two features in the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea), appeared lifeless, with almost no signs of life. Escoda shoal’s seabed has visible discoloration. Crushed corals are present in Rozul Reef. This was how the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) described the marine destruction in the contested area in the South China Sea in mid-September. The PCG said “deliberate activities may have been undertaken to modify the natural topography of its underwater terrain.”

The Coast Guard blamed the “severe” destruction on what it describes as indiscriminate, illegal, and destructive fishing activities of the Chinese maritime militia in the two sea features.

When PCG discovered the marine destruction from August to early September, 33 Chinese militia vessels were present near Rozul Reef and 15 in Escoda shoal.

China denied the allegations, saying it has no factual basis, and urged the Philippines to “stop creating a political drama from fiction.”

China, once again, made headlines after it installed a floating barrier on September 20 in the Scarborough Shoal, 198 kilometers west of Subic Bay, a former U.S. naval camp, preventing Filipino fishermen from entering the area, which is within Philippine’s exclusive economic zone. 

Upon the instruction of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the PCG announced, on September 26, the removal of the 300-meter barrier in what it calls “special operations.” 

In a news briefing on September 27, PCG spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela said they never took the buoy barrier but only cut its anchor. “The Philippines doesn’t claim that we are the ones who removed the barrier,” he said. 

The Chinese coast guard recovered their own barrier, Tarriela said. The PCG only cut the anchor and took it. China hit back, calling PCG’s removal of the barrier “nothing more than self-amusement”.

Tarriela noted that the PCG will dismantle all future barriers that Beijing would again install in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. 

“If ever that barrier will once again be in place, the PCG will do whatever it takes for us to remove that barrier,” he said. 

The anchor of the buoy barrier China installed in the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The Philippine Coast Guard cut the barrier after a go signal from Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Photo credit: Philippine Coast Guard

The destruction of the marine ecosystem in Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal irked the Philippine government, which has improved diplomatic ties with the U.S. Some officials even floated the idea of filing a second arbitration case against Beijing. 

In 2012, a lengthy standoff occurred between the Philippines and China, with Beijing able to take control of the Scarborough Shoal. It led the Philippines to file an arbitration case against China in 2013 before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, Netherlands, arguing Beijing’s nine-dash line, which claims almost all of the South China Sea, is illegal. 

In 2016, the Philippines won the case against China, with the court declaring Beijing’s nine-dash line unlawful. It ruled that Beijing encroaches on the Philippines’ sovereign rights and prevents the country’s fishermen from fishing in the area. China refused to accept the ruling. 

After the coral reef damage in the Rozul reef, the Philippines said it will explore all legal options against China. Rozul Reef is located at the southern end of the Reed Bank, an area the Philippines wants to explore for gas and oil. 

Philippine Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra said the in-depth study of the legal options would take two months. 

“(But) before even discussing legal options, we need to gather competent evidence on the various incidents in the (West Philippine Sea) since the arbitral award in 2016 and quantify all damages suffered,” Guevarra told Maritime Fairtrade in a Viber message. 

He said China’s installation of a floating barrier off the Scarborough Shoal “will surely be included in the (Office of the Solicitor General) inquiry and report.”

Maritime law expert and professor Dr. Jay Batongbacal believes an arbitration case should be among the options the Philippines should prepare for. But filing a second arbitration case as early as now is still premature. 

“I don’t think it’s yet time in the sense that such a case will require adequate preparation, especially if you are talking about a suit for damages. That requires substantial evidence,” Batongbacal told Maritime Fairtrade. 

President Marcos Jr., who has been pivoting the Philippines towards the U.S., said Manila is not looking for trouble but will continue to defend its territory. 

Batongbacal said China’s aggressive stance in the West Philippine Sea has been increasing since the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, Marcos Jr.’s predecessor, known for his China pivot strategy, which some considered a failure. 

“(China) wants to take control of the entire South China Sea regardless of the diplomatic posture of the Philippines and alliances,” he said. 

Tarriela said 54 Filipino fishing vessels entered the shoal to fish when the Chinese-installed barrier was cut, catching 168 tons of fish.  

However, he said it remains a struggle for the fishermen to enter the shoal’s lagoon, where most fish usually hide, because of the heavy presence of the Chinese vessels.

“I cannot speak for the next coming days whether they are able to consistently catch the same volume (of fish),” he said. 

Tarriela said the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, a government body that oversees marine resources, will increase their presence in the disputed territory. However, he noted that it does not mean that their presence will be constant because of their limited naval assets.

Photo credit: iStock/ Tomas Ragina

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