In a significant move, the Philippines has taken action to dismantle a floating barrier installed by China in the South China Sea, citing violations of its fishing rights in the contested area. The Philippines’ coast guard confirmed that this action was carried out under the directive of President Ferdinand Marcos Junior.
The dispute centers on the Scarborough Shoal, where China had erected a 300-meter-long (1,000-foot) barrier, impeding access to Filipino fishing boats. China’s territorial claims encompass over 90% of the South China Sea, and it took control of the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
China defended its actions, asserting that its coastguard’s actions were “necessary measures.” However, the Philippines countered, labeling the barrier as a hazard to navigation and a clear breach of international law. It emphasized that the barrier disrupted fishing activities crucial to the livelihoods of Filipino fishermen, adding that the Scarborough Shoal was an integral part of Philippine national territory.
Commodore Jay Tarriela of the Philippine coast guard reported that the barrier was discovered during a patrol. Chinese coast guard vessels and a maritime militia service boat had installed the barrier as a Philippine vessel arrived at the scene. The Chinese boats issued 15 radio challenges, accusing the Philippine ship and fishermen of violating international and Chinese laws before retreating upon realizing the presence of media personnel aboard the Philippine vessel.
Japan, concerned about regional stability, urged calm in the escalating situation. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno emphasized Japan’s opposition to any actions that heightened tension in the South China Sea.
Background: The South China Sea Dispute
The South China Sea holds significant importance as a rich fishing ground and is believed to contain vast reserves of oil and gas. More than half of the world’s fishing vessels operate in this region.
China’s extensive claims over the South China Sea, including sovereignty over islands and their surrounding waters, have triggered disputes not only with the Philippines but also with Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. China has reinforced its claims through island-building and naval patrols.
The United States has asserted that it does not take sides in territorial disputes but has conducted military operations, including sending ships and planes near disputed islands, under the banner of “freedom of navigation.”
China’s capture of the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 led to Filipino fishermen having to venture farther for smaller catches. Relations improved under former President Rodrigo Duterte, allowing Philippine fishermen to return to the vicinity. However, tensions escalated with the assumption of office by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who restored security ties with the United States and expanded American military access to Philippine bases in early 2023. This move drew the ire of China, as it perceives an enlarged U.S. presence in the Philippines as a strategic concern.