The Philippines has triggered another territorial dispute with China after arresting eleven Chinese fishermen on charges of illegally catching endangered sea turtles and illegally crossing territorial waters into the Philippines. They continue being held over protest from the Chinese government.
The boat, which had hundreds of sea turtles onboard at the time of its capture, is being held in Palawan, a western province of the Philippines, along with its crew. The government has said they must investigate the charges before detention can end. As catching the sea turtles violates Philippine law, their capture implies that Half Moon Shoal, where they were arrested, is Philippine territory, rekindling an extended dispute with China.
The Chinese government responded by declaring “indisputable sovereign rights over the sea area, including the Half Moon Shoal of the Nansha Islands,” according to Xinhua. Chinese embassy spokesman Zhang Hua said in a statement that the Philippines was violating Chinese sovereignty and must “immediately” return the ship and its crew, and cease its “provocative action.”
The Philippines has declined to give in to the demand to return the fishermen. The Associated Press reports that national police chief Alan Purisima reiterated the intentions of the Philippine government to investigate the fishermen for both violating sea turtle laws and illegal entry into the Philippines. Rather than accepting the claim that the shoal is Chinese territory, he added that the Philippines intends to strengthen its security presence in the area in response to the incident. “Our assertion is, that it is ours, that it is Philippine territory,” he said.
The Philippine government has increased its response to what it perceives as significant territorial disputes with China. In late April, the government signed a new, ten-year pact with the United States meant to secure the nation’s territorial sovereignty. The pact would “allow U.S. forces to train and conduct exercises with Philippine forces for maritime security, disaster assistance and humanitarian aid,” and generally increases U.S. presence in the region.
Meanwhile, China continues to work to establish its sovereignty over almost the entirety of the South China Sea, much to the chagrin of both the Philippines and Vietnam. News surfaced today of the presence of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters in Vietnam, accompanied to the area by a number of military aircraft and maritime vessels that have “rammed Vietnamese ships and fended them off with water cannons, raising tensions between the nations to their highest in years.” Vietnamese officials have objected to this behavior and called the current situation “very tense.” The United States has expressed its dismay with the situation, urging China to refrain from such “provocative and unhelpful” behavior.