MANILA (Reuters) – The Chinese coast guard has removed the remains of a floating barrier cut by its Filipino counterparts at a hotly contested shoal in the South China Sea, the Philippines said on Tuesday, adding that there was no confrontation or signs of aggression.
The Philippines on Monday carried out what it called a “special operation” to cut a 300-metre-long barrier erected by China in the Scarborough Shoal area. One of the most controversial marine features in AsiaThis is a move that is likely to further strain relations that have deteriorated in the past year.
The Chinese Coast Guard was measured in its response to a Philippine ship that came as close as it had to the rocky outcrop since China took control in 2012, according to Commodore Guy Tarella, a Coast Guard spokesman.
The Philippine Coast Guard, posing as an ordinary fisherman on a small boat, later cut the ball buoy’s barrier and took the anchor, Tarella told DWPM Radio and ANC News Channel.
He added that four Chinese Coast Guard ships were in the area and were not “that aggressive” after the media sighting on board a Filipino ship.
The Chinese removed the barriers a few hours after discovering they were no longer aligned and blocking the lake, Tarella said.
The Scarborough Shoal, a major fishing area located about 200 kilometers off the Philippines and within its exclusive economic zone, is the site of decades of intermittent sovereignty disputes.
On Monday, China did not directly refer to the barrier, but said that the coast guard had moved to repel a Philippine ship that was “intruding” into its waters.
The Philippines and China have repeatedly quarreled over the shoals, but under the previous pro-China administration in Manila, tensions declined for several years.
But relations have soured in the past year, as President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who authorized the severing of the cordon, seeks closer defense ties with his ally the United States, including access to his country’s military bases.
China claims ownership of almost all of the South China Sea, including the Scarborough Shoal, despite an arbitration ruling in 2016 that said this was unfounded. China does not recognize the ruling.
Speaking to reporters about removing the barrier on Tuesday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo said that this step is consistent with the country’s position on the South China Sea.
“Technically, we had the right to exercise our sovereignty and sovereign rights, so that would have been consistent with our position,” he said.
(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales) Editing by Martin Beatty
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