The Philippine coast guard has reported the presence of a 300-meter (1,000-foot) barrier obstructing fishermen from accessing a lagoon in the Scarborough Shoal, reigniting tensions in the South China Sea. China asserts sovereignty over more than 90% of this strategic sea region and seized control of the shoal in 2012.
Commodore Jay Tarriela of the Philippine coast guard disclosed that the barrier was discovered during a patrol on Friday. According to his account, three Chinese coast guard vessels and a Chinese maritime militia service boat installed the barrier when a Philippine vessel arrived at the scene. During the incident, the Chinese boats issued 15 radio challenges, accusing the Philippine ship and fishermen of violating international and Chinese laws. They later withdrew upon realizing the presence of media personnel aboard the Filipino vessel.
China’s embassy in Manila has not yet responded to requests for comment regarding the incident.
Cmdr Tarriela emphasized that the barrier was severely impacting the livelihoods of Filipino fishermen, noting that China typically installs such obstacles when monitoring a large number of fishermen in the area. He pledged that the Philippine coast guard would collaborate with concerned governments but would also assert its maritime rights and protect its maritime domains.
The South China Sea is known for its rich fishing grounds and is believed to contain vast reserves of oil and gas. Over half of the world’s fishing vessels operate in this region. China’s expansive territorial claims, which encompass land parcels and adjacent waters, have sparked disputes with not only the Philippines but also Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. China has bolstered these claims through island-building activities and naval patrols.
While the United States maintains that it does not take sides in territorial disputes, it has conducted “freedom of navigation” operations by deploying military ships and aircraft near contested islands.
The Scarborough Shoal was seized by China in 2012, displacing Filipino fishermen who had traditionally relied on the area for their catches. Relations improved, and China allowed Philippine fishermen back into the vicinity under former President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. China perceives an expanded U.S. presence in the Philippines as a challenge to its interests in the region, further complicating an already delicate geopolitical situation.