Bangkok, Apr 9 (efe-epa).- Tensions between Beijing and Manila over the disputed South China Sea rose Friday after the Philippine Defense Department opened an investigation after images were released showing Chinese ships chasing a civilian boat carrying journalists in Philippine waters.
A team from the Philippine channel ABS-CBN said the Navy of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army deployed two boats with missiles to scare away the ship they were on board, among the reefs and islets near the Philippine island of Palawan. It is located within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines but militarily occupied by China.
“We are concerned about the safety of unarmed civilians at sea,” Philippine Defense Department spokesman Arsenio Andolong said in a Friday statement, ordering the Armed Forces to investigate the matter, the first recorded case of a military maneuver against a civilian ship in those waters.
The incident report said the Chinese Navy detected the ship in which ABS-CBN was traveling, communicated with them by radio demanding their removal from the area, and was then pursued for an hour by a ship “getting so close that the bow with the number 5101 was clearly visible.”
“That ship turned around and two ships with Houbei-class missiles appeared moments later,” the ABS-CBN report added.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodore Locsin condemned the incident on his Twitter account, noting that “it is imperative that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopt once and for all a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, that all parties, including China, accept without reservation.”
Locsin held a Friday telephone call with United States State Secretary Antony Blinken in which they spoke of the need to “strengthen the mutual defense treaty in view of the latest geopolitical developments and challenges in Asia Pacific, specifically in the sea of South China,” according to the Phillippine Foreign Office.
The US State Department statement was more explicit, mentioning that both addressed their concern over the growing presence of Chinese maritime militias in disputed waters, but which the Hague Court of Arbitration already attributed to the Philippines in a 2016 ruling that Beijing does not recognize.
The Philippines – which has received strong support from the new US administration in this dispute – has held several diplomatic protests in recent weeks against China over the “overwhelming and threatening” presence of more than 200 Chinese ships in Philippine waters sighted in various Air Force inspections.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei claim parts of this strategic sea – through which 30 percent of global trade circulates and which is home to 12 percent of the world’s fishing grounds, in addition to oil and gas fields.
China claims the sovereignty of these waters almost in their entirety and continues with its military activities and economic exploitation. EFE-EPA