May 27, 2017 02:59 AM PST
SINCE 2007

Water cannon incident ups tension in South China Sea

FilAm Star-Philippines
News Bureau Chief

MANILA -- The two-fold response of the Philippines on the hostile water-cannon attack of Filipino fisherman by the Chinese Coast Guard in Bajo de Masinloc is a diplomatic protest and a renewed call for speedier international arbitration on the territorial dispute.  The water cannon incident, which duly alarmed Manila, took place a month ago but burst into public attention only Feb. 25 when the Department of Foreign Affairs summoned the charge d’affaires of the Chinese embassy here to inquire about it.

On Jan. 27, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel with Bow No. 3063 bore down on two Filipino fishing boats in the vicinity of Bajo de Masinloc, sounded its horn continuously, then unloaded its water cannons on both boats “for several minutes” to drive the fisherman away from the marine-rich Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal.  China and the Philippines are locked in a territorial dispute over the Panatag Shoal, which is well within the territorial waters of Zambales province.  This was confirmed by Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Emmanuel Bautista who said the Chinese Coast Guard “tried to drive away Filipino fishing vessels to the extent of using water cannons."


It was considered by many as a tipping point in China’s aggression in the disputed islands.  But Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told reporters that diplomatic protest is the official response.  This was the first step to bringing the issue to the international community.  An open confrontation with the Chinese ships in the area will be avoided but Gazmin said a “calibrated response” is in line for a ny repeat of the incident.

“In case the Chinese coast guard will still persist with water cannons, our response should be calibrated – where we will have the Philippine Coast Guard,” said Gazmin. 

Despite the hostile act, Bautista said the Philippine military did not respond to the incident head on.  "We do not want any confrontation with anybody, in this case the Chinese Coast Guard ... and it's a matter policy that we want to resolve this issue through peaceful means and that is through international arbitration," he said.

By deploying PCG vessels to the shoal, Gazmin said Manila wants to maintain a “white on white response and not to heighten the tension.”  The PCG is he equivalent of the Chinese Maritime Surveillance group.

The PCG is, however, raring to show the Chinese that they can’t always have their way with the local fishermen.  Coast Guard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo said if Malacañang gives the go-ahead signal, they would escort Filipino fishermen while plying their ware in Bajo de Masinloc.  “Our vessels are ready,” said Balilo, who seemed aware that, more than discouraging the Chinese from again messing around with the escorted fishermen, this would appear as a challenge to the Chinese coast guard patrolling the area.    

The Chinese embassy in Manila insists that China has “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and their adjacent waters.” The embassy, in a statement, stressed that China’s sovereignty includes Huangyan Islands, as Bejing calls PanatagShoal.  The whole of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) is being claimed by China, which is also embroiled in a territorial row with other Asian countries around the disputed sea.

AFP spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said in a statement that the Chinese coast guard's move can be considered a threat to the freedom of navigation in the disputed waters.  "It's very important we try to solve this aggression through peaceful means such as rules-based protest.  These such (Chinese) actions can then be used as our evidence in the international court," Zagala said.

Chinese vessels started occupying the Panatag Shoal after a Philippine Navy ship apprehended Chinese fishermen who are caught poaching in the area. The Philippine Navy ship's crew members were prevented by a Chinese military vessel from arresting the fishermen, which later resulted in a standoff.   The standoff ended after the Philippine government ordered its ships to withdraw from the disputed territory.

DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said the water cannon incident came in the wake of at least nine other instances of “harassment” of Filipino fishermen by Chinese civilian maritime law enforcement agency (CMLEA) vessels last year.  These incidents happened even during inclement weather conditions when local fishing vessels need to seek temporary shelter in the disputed islands.  But the use of water cannons seems to be new, Hernandez said, and represents a hardening of Beijing’s attitude toward Manila’s continuing resistance both to the expansive Chinese claims and to China’s preferred bilateral approach.

This is perceived as a worrisome escalation in the methods Beijing has seen fit to employ, to force the issue in Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal.  It is possible for Philippine Navy vessels to come to the aid of stricken fishing boats, but the Philippines does not have the capability to render this service for the long term.  Besides, it is believed that militarization of the problem will only play to Beijing’s hand.