Editor's Pick South China Sea: Waters of Contention

China fired at Filipino fishermen in Jackson atoll

Placemark on Google map shows location of Jackson atoll in the disputed Spratlys group of islands.
Placemark on Google map shows location of Jackson atoll in the disputed Spratlys group of islands.

“This is Chinese Warship 560. You are in the China territory. Leave the area immediately.”

Upon hearing this warning through a marine band radio, three Philippine boats fishing in Quirino, or Jackson atoll, a Philippine-claimed islet off Palawan in the disputed Spratly Islands, scampered away.

But the Chinese warship still fired three shots at the vessels F/V Jaime DLS, F/V Mama Lydia DLS and F/V Maricris 12. The Philippine Navy later identified the Chinese warship as Dongguan, a Jianghu-V Class missile frigate.

The incident in the South China Sea happened on Feb. 25—before March when the Philippine-commissioned seismic vessel was reportedly harassed in Reed Bank in western Palawan and before the Chinese vessels laid steel posts and a buoy in May in the Amy Douglas (Iroquois) Bank southwest of Reed Bank which Manila said is within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Yet while the Philippine government protested the March and May incidents, one by note verbale another verbally, it did no such thing about the February incident.

[Statement from the Chinese Embassy in Manila:  China holds a clear and consistent position on the South China Sea issue. The reported “incursion of Chinese ships” is not true. It’s only China’s marine research ship conducting normal maritime research activities on the South China Sea. June 2, 2011]

Jackson atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef that has closely spaced islands on it encircling a lagoon. It is a rich fishing ground within Palawan’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and belongs to the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) which under Philippine law is part of the country’s regime of islands.

[Statement of the Department of Foreign Affairs On the Presence of Chinese Vessels In the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea)

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) conveyed to the Chinese Embassy on June 2 its protest over the increasing presence and activities of Chinese vessels including naval assets in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

This protest follows a series of protests already filed by the DFA since the Reed Bank incident in March.

As a matter of course, the DFA files verbal or written protests as soon as it receives confirmed and actionable reports from the Department of National Defense.

The DFA noted that these actions of Chinese vessels hamper the normal and legitimate fishing activities of the Filipino fishermen in the area and undermines the peace and stability of the region.

The actions of the Chinese vessels in Philippine waters are serious violations of Philippine sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction and also violate the ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, both sides agreed to keep the channels of communication open and continue dialogue on the South China Sea issue. June 4, 2011]

A military report seen by VERA Files said that on Feb. 25, while anchored at Jackson atoll, the three Philippine fishing boats were approached by the Chinese warship, which introduced itself through a marine band radio and demanded that the Filipino fishermen leave at once.

F/V Maricris 12, however, experienced trouble removing its anchor, and its captain, Russel De la Cruz, pleaded with the Chinese warship, also through a marine band radio to “please wait for a while.”

“However, the Chinese warship repeatedly answered, ‘I will shoot you.’ Then, De la Cruz heard three consecutive gunshots and saw the projectiles hit the surface of the water 0.3 nautical miles away from the position of F/V Maricris,” the military report said.

F/V Maricris 12 had to cut its anchor lines in order to flee from what it sensed was imminent danger.

The gunshots were also heard by F/V Jaime DLS, which reported the incident by radio to the Philippine Navy detachment on Lawak Island which, in turn, relayed it to the Naval Station on Pag-Asa island until it reached the Naval Forces West headquarters in Palawan.

The three beleaguered fishing vessels proceeded to the Philippine-occupied Lawak where they sought refuge for two days. The Chinese warship was later sighted southeast of Lawak toward Patag Island, also held by the Philippines.

According to the military report, when F/V Maricris 12 returned to Jackson atoll on Feb. 28 to retrieve its anchor, it sighted three Chinese fishing vessels colored blue, red and green, exploiting the marine resources in the area.

The oil-rich Spratlys chain in the South China Sea is being claimed in part by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei and wholly by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. Of the more or less 160 islands, Vietnam occuppies 25 islands; China, 12; the Philippines, nine; Malaysia, five, and Taiwan, one. Brunei does not occupy a single geographical feaure but has established a fishing zone that overlaps a southern reef.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin expressed alarm at the increasing Chinese incursions in the hotly contested Spratly Islands.

Dumami yung intrusions. Ibig sabihin e, yung mga areas nasa lugar natin na wala tayong mga gwardya ay doon ang nilalagyan nila. In other words, gusto nila magtanim ng mga bandera nila sa ganun masabi nila sa kanila yung area (The incursions are rising. This means they are positioning themselves in areas that are ours but are unguarded. In other words, they want to plant flags to claim these places),” Gazmin said in a briefing Wednesday.

Besides the recent incidents at Jackson atoll, Reed Bank and Amy Douglas Bank, a Chinese marine vessel with a flat bed was sighted in Abad Santos or Bombay shoal on May 6, and the the Chinese Marine Surveillance ship 75 and Salvage/research Ship 707 were spotted steaming toward Southern Bank on May 21.

Armed Forces chief Eduardo Oban said the military will maintain the level of force in the disputed islands, but will also increase the operational tempo of its routine patrols and reconnaissance flights within the country’s terroritorial boundaries.

On Tuesday, the Department of Foreign Affairs summoned the charge d’affaires of the Chinese Embassy in Manila to seek clarification on the recent sightings of a China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessel and other People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships at the vicinity of the Amy Douglas Bank.

The Philippine Navy, through the fishermen, had recovered steel posts with Chinese markings that were put up in the area, according to Oban.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. del Rosario said, “Any new construction by China in the vicinity of the uninhabited Amy Douglas Bank is a clear violation of the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea.”

The Chinese vessels were first sighted by fishermen on May 24 and reported to the Philippine Navy the following day.

After receiving the report on May 26, the Navy headquarters in Manila ordered a ship deployed to the area to verify the sighting. Bad weather, however, hampered the immediate deployment of the ship to Amy Douglas.

By May 29, the Chinese vessels were no longer in the area, the posts had been dismantled and turned over to the Navy, and the buoy was no longer there.

The AFP intelligence department briefed Gazmin and Oban on the developments in the KIG on Monday and later Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario.

The Cabinet’s National Security Cluster met Tuesday at the Villamor Airbase regarding the incident shortly before the President left for a state visit in Brunei, and a statement was subsequently issued by the DFA.

The DFA, however, did not hand the Chinese embassy a note verbale when it summoned the charge d’affaires on Tuesday.

This was unlike the diplomatic protest it issued in March when Chinese boats ordered a Philippine seismic vessel in Reed Bank to leave, and even maneuvered close to the Philippine vessel at least twice, apparently to show they would ram it.

The diplomatic protest seen by VERA Files raised four points to prove that Reed Bank is not part of the disputed area by projecting 85 nautical miles from the basepoint in the northern part of Palawan and not from the KIG.  China questioned this during meetings with the Philippines, but did not reply in a diplomatic note.

The military acknowledged its lack of capability to confront foreign enemies, but said it is ready to defend the country. But it said it prefers diplomatic means as the first option in dealing with the South China Sea dispute.

“The option open to us is first the diplomatic protest. We are in no position to confront the forces that are intruding in our territory simply because we don’t have the capability,” Gazmin said.

He said the Chinese intrude into the disputed areas by initially setting up posts and then laying buoys to claim an area. The posts eventually become a lighthouse.

“Once this becomes a lighthouse these are boundaries of territories. So once that is established they can always claim that is theirs,” the defense secretary said. “That is why it is our responsibility to make sure that this doesn’t happen now and in the future.”

He said the military is upgrading the capability of its maritime assets in the area to better guard the islands. “Hand-in-hand with this is the organization of our fishermen who provide us the necessary information and documentation needed to file a formal diplomatic protest,” Gazmin said.