Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista has confirmed that China’s Coast Guard fired water cannons at Filipino fishermen on January 27 to drive them off Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal).
The area is the subject of a dispute among several nations, including the Philippines and China, who are all claiming they own the territory.
Speaking before a forum of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP), Bautista maintained that China fired the water cannons to drive the Filipino fishing vessels out of the area.
China’s New Fisheries Law
Earlier this year, China announced that its Coast Guards are tasked to patrol Chinese waters to prevent illegal entry and fishing.
However, a huge portion of these so-called “Chinese waters” are actually considered as international waters whose ownership is still being disputed by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, China, and the Philippines.
In fact, the Panatag Shoal, where the incident allegedly happened, is located 650 km from the nearest Chinese landmass, Hainan Island, yet just 220 kilometers (135 miles) from the main island of Luzon.
The incident happened five days after President Benigno Aquino III announced that no untoward incidents have occurred in the disputed waters since China’s declaration of the new fisheries law.
Aquino said, however, that the implications against the country’s national security with regard to the territorial dispute are likely to go beyond his tenure as president.
Bautista did not mention whether the fishermen had suffered injuries following the water cannon firing but merely said that they had reported the incident to the authorities. As of press time, investigations are still being conducted regarding this incident.
It was, however, an isolated incident and was the first of its kind to occur in the area after China had imposed its new fisheries law last January 1. Based on the new fisheries law, any foreign vessel who wishes to enter Chinese waters must first ask permission from China to be able to do so.
It is yet unsure whether the Philippines would launch a formal complaint against China regarding the issue, pending the outcome of the investigation.
Asked how the AFP would respond to the incident, Bautista responded that there would be no direct confrontation from the Philippines. Once again, the country would exhaust diplomatic means to resolve the issue, hoping for a resolution via international arbitration.
Bautista added that it is the country’s policy not to engage in war and that the army would not fire back at the Chinese ships patrolling the area.
In incidents with China in the past, the Philippines had always sought help from the United Nations (UN) to resolve the issue. However, China refused to join the arbitration at the UN.
Nevertheless, even without its participation, the arbitration can still proceed.
Back in 2012, both countries had a face off at Panatag Shoal, lasting for about two months. The Philippines could not match China’s firepower, of course.
When a storm threatened to hit the area, the Filipino ships were called off but China held its ground, effectively seizing the area.