China expels Filipino boats from shoal

Posted on March 11, 2014

BEIJING -- China said yesterday that its coast guard ships had driven away two Philippine vessels which had tried to approach a shoal in the South China Sea in the latest flare-up of a long-running territorial dispute.

The Chinese ships were patrolling waters around Second Thomas Shoal, known in China as the Ren’ai reef, when they spotted the Philippine boats, carrying construction materials and Philippine flags, which left the area after being warned off, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

The incident happened on Sunday, he added.

Mr. Qin said that China had repeatedly demanded the Philippines remove a ship, which had been grounded on the shoal in 1999, but that Manila had cited technical reasons for being unable to do so.

"This time, the Philippine side has again attempted to start construction on the reef," he told a daily news briefing. "The moves infringed China’s sovereignty."

China had no choice but to respond to the Philippines’ moves, Mr. Qin added.

Manila ran aground an old transport ship on the reef in 1999 to mark its territory, and has stationed marines in abject conditions on the rusting ship.

China’s claims over islands, reefs and atolls in resource-rich waters off its south coast and to the east of mainland Southeast Asia have set it directly against Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to parts.

The Second Thomas Shoal, a strategic gateway to Reed Bank, believed to be rich in oil and natural gas, is one of several possible flash points in the South China Sea that could force the United States to intervene in defense of its Southeast Asian allies.

In 2010, Manila awarded an Anglo-Filipino consortium a license to explore for gas on Reed Bank, but drilling stalled in 2012, because of the presence of Chinese ships. Manila says Reed Bank, about 80 nautical miles west of Palawan island at the southwestern end of the Philippine archipelago, is within the country’s 200-nautical mile (370 kilometers) exclusive economic zone.

Beijing says it is part of the Spratlys, a group of 250 uninhabitable islets spread over 165,000 square miles, claimed entirely by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and in part by Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

Last Sunday, Presidential Spokesperson Herminio B. Coloma, Jr. has said the Philippines also has the right to defend every inch of its territory, after China made a similar warning.

Mr. Coloma’s remarks came after China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said on Saturday his country would vigorously defend its sovereignty against "unreasonable demands from smaller countries".

Although he was referring to Japan, which has its own territorial dispute with China, his remarks could also cover China’s other territorial dispute with the Philippines and other countries over parts of the South China Sea.

"It is the right of every country to defend its national territory. That is also the principle we are following," Mr. Coloma told reporters, commenting on the Chinese minister’s remarks.

Mr. Coloma added that the Philippines was basing its position on the principles of international law. -- Reuters, AFP