MANILA, Philippines – Chinese coast guard vessels repeatedly blocked or chased Filipino and Vietnamese fishermen from a disputed shoal where they previously had only tried to block military supply runs, a Philippine marine officer said Tuesday.
Marine 1st Lt. Mike Pelotera said he and his men saw the fishermen being “bullied” away from the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea at least eight times from December to March, when his marine monitoring unit was replaced by a new batch.
He said he shot a video of a Chinese ship chasing a wooden-hulled Vietnamese fishing boat dangerously close to coral outcrops.
Chinese blockades of fishing boats have been reported in other disputed areas, but Pelotera’s comments were the first military report of such activity against fishermen trying to venture into Second Thomas Shoal. The Chinese coast guard in recent months has tried to block boats delivering marines and food supplies to a rusting Philippine navy ship deliberately marooned at the shoal since 1999.
“It’s with a heavy heart that we saw our countrymen being bullied away from our own territory,” Pelotera said. “But we’re observing a maximum-tolerance policy and we want this dispute to be peacefully resolved.”
The 8-kilometre (5-mile) long submerged coral outcrop is a rich fishing area believed to have undersea oil and gas deposits.
The Philippines also protested to China when a Chinese government ship fired a water cannon to drive away Filipino fishermen from another disputed region, the Scarborough Shoal north of the Spratlys, in January.
In Manila on Tuesday, about 80 activists protested at the Chinese consulate, demanding that China stop intruding into Philippine territory in the South China Sea. An activist wrote anti-China slogans using a spray paint on the steps leading to the building housing the consulate. A security officer tried to stop him but was overwhelmed by the activists.
Territorial disputes will be a thorny issue when President Barack Obama this week visits Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, all of which have a dispute with Beijing over islands and waters in the South and East China seas.
Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and other U.S. officials have warned China against the use of military force, but has not taken sides in the territorial rifts.