China is accusing a group of Philippine fishermen of attacking Chinese Coast Guard ships with fire bombs after the Chinese ships chased them out of disputed waters in the South China Sea, waters the Philippines considers its sovereign territory.
Chinese officials chased a Philippine fishing boat out of the Scarborough Shoal, near the Spratly Islands. The Philippine Star reports that “at least 10 Filipino fishermen” told authorities they were being forced out of the resource-rich waters by the Chinese Coast Guard. Upon being attacked by Chinese authorities, according to their village leader Charlito Maniago, they began to fight back, knowing they were well within Philippine national waters. “Maniago said the fishermen told him how they tried to fight off — even with stones — the Chinese, who were driving them away from the shoal,” the newspaper reports.
The Star says the Philippine ship was “well within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone,” though in waters that the Chinese have used force to control for themselves in the past year.
While the Philippine version of the incident describes the fishermen in question as essentially unharmed, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters Tuesday that the Philippine boat attacked when approached by the Chinese Coast Guard. “Chinese official ships advised the illegally stationed Philippine trawlers to leave, in accordance with the law, but they refused to obey,” she claimed, adding, “Certain people on the ships even waved around machetes and flung fire bombs, carrying out deliberate provocation, attacking the Chinese law enforcers and official boat, confronting China’s law enforcement and seriously threatening the safety and order of the waters around Huangyan Island [Scarborough Shoal].”
Hua has also recently attacked the government of the Philippines for fostering closer ties with the United States after years of Chinese expansionism has left them with no de facto control over much of its territory in the South China Sea. The Global Times quotes Hua as accusing the United States of hypocrisy: “The US has talked about militarization in the South China Sea. But can it explain whether its own increased military deployment in the region is equivalent to militarization?”
“The US-Philippines cooperation should not target third parties, harm the sovereignty or security interests of other states or hamper regional peace and stability,” she added.
The incident follows a similar maritime dispute with Indonesia. On Saturday night, Indonesian authorities captured a Chinese ship fishing illegally in exclusively Indonesian waters. Upon seizing the vessel and arresting its crew, a Chinese Coast Guard ship began ramming into the Chinese vessel, forcing Indonesian authorities to let it go or risk sinking it. The incident occurred by the Natuna Islands, which China does not dispute, though the Chinese government refused to acknowledge that the ship in question was illegally traveling inside Indonesian waters. Instead, at a separate briefing, Hua called the territory in question “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.”
China has traditionally kept its belligerence towards foreign fishermen at sea limited to Vietnam, a fellow communist nation with limited ties to powers with the ability to challenge it at sea, like the United States and Australia. Multiple reports of Vietnamese fishermen being attacked for using the waters around the Paracel Islands have surfaced in the past decade.
The Indonesian incident is the reverse, however: a Chinese ship illegally present in foreign waters. It is the second such incident this month. Last week, the government of Argentina identified a Chinese ship fishing illegally in its waters. When the Argentine Coast Guard demanded it leave, the Chinese ship began attacking the Argentine vessels. Ultimately, Argentine authorities were forced to sink the Chinese ship.