Filipino Fisherman, Chinese Coast Guard Face Off in Disputed Shoal

The confrontation is testing efforts to deescalate tensions in a potential Asian flashpoint.

Philippine coast guard spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela during an interview in Manila, Jan. 23, 2024.
Philippine coast guard spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela during an interview in Manila, Jan. 23, 2024.
AP Photo/Aaron Favila

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Filipino fishing boat captain protested on Tuesday the Chinese coast guard's aggression in the disputed South China Sea where he said Chinese officers drove him and his men away from a disputed shoal and ordered them to dump their catch back to sea.

The face-to-face confrontation on Jan. 12, which Filipino fisherman Joely Saligan and his men reported belatedly to Manila's coast guard after returning from the sea voyage, is testing efforts by China and Philippines to deescalate tensions in a potential Asian flashpoint.

At a Jan. 17 meeting in Shanghai, Beijing and Manila agreed to take steps to ease tensions after a year of high-seas territorial faceoffs between their ships in the sea passage, one of the world's busiest. The hostilities have sparked fears of a major armed conflict that could involve Washington, Manila's longtime treaty ally.

The fishermen, led by Saligan, reported to the Philippine coast guard that Chinese coast guard personnel drove them away from the disputed Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines on Jan. 12 and ordered them to dump their catch of fish and seashells back to the sea.

The confrontation happened on a coral outcrop, which juts out of the high seas like an islet at low tide. Saligan and his men took a dinghy from their mother boat and went to collect seashells and fish for food during their sea voyage. However, five Chinese coast guard personnel, three of them armed with steel batons, followed by boat, alighted on the islet and ordered the fishermen to leave.

One Chinese officer tried to confiscate the cellphone of a Filipino fisherman, who resisted by pushing away the officer's hand. Both sides were documenting the confrontation either with video cameras or cellphones, Saligan said.

"This is Philippine territory. Go away," Saligan said he told the Chinese coast guard personnel, who he said insisted that they leave the shoal immediately. The Chinese did not speak and used hand gestures, he said.

"They looked angry. They wanted us to return our catch to the sea," Saligan told a small group of journalists, including from The Associated Press, in Manila. "That's inhuman because that was food which people should not be deprived of."

Saligan said he decided to dump some of their seashells and fish back in the sea and returned by boat to his mother boat, the F/V Vhrayle, to prevent the dispute from escalating.

Chinese officials did not immediately comment on Saligan's statements. In past disputes over the Scarborough Shoal, however, Beijing has asserted China's sovereignty and the right to defend the rich fishing atoll from encroachments.

Philippine coast guard spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela said the written statements and video submitted by Saligan and his men have been validated as accurate by the coast guard. A report would be submitted to a multi-agency government group dealing with the long-simmering territorial disputes for possible actions, including the filing of a new diplomatic protest against China.

"Those actions were really illegal and the harassment that they did to our Filipino fishermen were unacceptable," Tarriela said in a news briefing.

The Philippine coast guard remained confident, however, that the agreement by China and the Philippines to lower tensions would "have a positive impact" and foster a peaceful resolution of the long-seething disputes, Tarriela said.

Chinese and Philippine coast guard ships engaged in a series of alarmingly tense hostilities last year mostly off the Second Thomas Shoal, another hotly contested area in the South China Sea. The Philippine government repeatedly protested the Chinese coast guard's use of water cannon, a military-grade laser and dangerous blocking maneuvers that had caused minor collisions off the Philippine-occupied shoal.

The United States has warned that it is obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under an armed attack, including in the South China Sea. China has repeatedly warned of unspecified circumstances if the U.S. and its allies continue to meddle in the disputes.

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