The Philippine government said Tuesday it was “vigilantly” monitoring developments in the South China Sea and investigating a recent incident where a China Coast Guard ship allegedly harassed local fishermen near a Filipino-occupied shoal.
The encounter at sea occurred on Jan. 9 when the crew of KEN-KEN fishing boat reported that a Chinese ship with bow number 5204 and a smaller boat drove them away from waters near Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), according to the Philippine Coast Guard.
“Ayungin Shoal is part of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines. The Philippines is entitled to exercise sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the area, without any intervention from another country,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Tuesday.
“Filipino fishermen are free to exercise their rights and take whatever they are due under Philippine and international law, particularly the 1982 UNCLOS and the final and binding 2016 Arbitral Award,” it said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Philippine foreign office said it was waiting for the local law enforcement agencies’ official reports on the alleged incident.
“The reports will serve as a basis for diplomatic action on the incident,” the department said.
“The department vigilantly monitors any developments in the West Philippine Sea, especially following the discussions between President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the former’s state visit to China,” it said, using the Filipino name for areas within its EEZ in the South China Sea.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to RFA-affiliate BenarNews requests for comment.
The shoal, about 174 nautical miles from Puerto Princesa, a port city in the western Philippines’ Palawan province, is one of the nine areas occupied by Filipino forces in the disputed waters. The Philippines maintains a small contingent of Marines housed aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated World War-II era ship that was deliberately run aground in the 1990s.
Marcos said that his state visit to China in early January had already yielded a positive outcome through the two nations using an agreed-to hotline to focus on sea tensions.
“So we have immediately used that thing, that mechanism that I talked about where I said we can immediately contact the Chinese government, and hopefully our counterparts on the other side can bring it to President Xi’s attention – this problem – and we have done that,” Marcos told a select group of broadcasters Monday, according to transcripts released Tuesday.
“But it does not preclude us from continuing to make protests and continuing to send note verbales concerning this,” he said, referring to diplomatic notes without elaborating.
The Marcos administration has insisted repeatedly that issues in the South China Sea do not define relations with China. On Tuesday, Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco joined Huang Xilian, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, in greeting one of the first plane loads of Chinese tourists to arrive in Manila in three years.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Artemio Abu confirmed that the Filipino fishermen “were being shadowed” and that the Philippine side responded by intensifying its assets near Ayungin.
He said his agency had sent “raw footage” of the incident to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
“We give confidence to our Filipino fishermen that they are taken care of and protected. We assure our Filipino fishermen that they are protected and secured through our constant presence,” Abu said in a television interview.
The commandant said coast guard leaders would raise concerns with their counterparts from China during “high-level talks,” but he did not disclose the date.
“We really need to coordinate well with the national leadership. It has to be communicated down to the frontlines,” Abu said.
The incident was the first alleged case of Chinese harassment of a Philippine fishing boat reported in 2023. Last year, the Philippines carried out at least 10 resupply missions to the Sierra Madre without any incidents, apart from reports of the Chinese Coast Guard issuing verbal challenges.
In March 2014, a boat carrying supplies and Filipino journalists to Ayungin evaded a Chinese Coast Guard blockade during a two-hour standoff.
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service