MANILA — The Philippines on Tuesday said China’s coastguard had removed remnants of a floating barrier severed by its Filipino counterparts at a fiercely contested shoal the South China Sea, adding there was no standoff or signs of aggression.
The Philippines on Monday executed what it called a “special operation” to cut a 300-metre barrier installed by China at the Scarborough Shoal, one of Asia’s most contested maritime features, a move likely to further strain ties that have deteriorated in the past year.
China’s coastguard was measured in its response to a Philippine vessel that reached its closest point to the rocky outcrop since China seized control of it in 2012, according to Commodore Jay Tarriela, a coastguard spokesperson.
The Philippines coastguard, posing as regular fishermen aboard a small boat, later cut the ball-buoy barrier and took away the anchor, Tarriela told DWPM radio and ANC news channel.
He said four China coastguard vessels were in the area and were “not that aggressive” after seeing media on board a Philippine ship.
The Chinese took away the barriers, a few hours after discovering it was no longer aligned and blocking the lagoon, Tarriela said.
The Scarborough Shoal, a prime fishing spot located about 200 km (124 miles) off the Philippines and within its exclusive economic zone, is the site of decades of on-off disputes over sovereignty.
China on Monday made no direct mention of the barrier but said coastguard had moved to repel a Philippine vessel that was “intruding” in its waters.
The Philippines and China have repeatedly sparred over the shoal but under the previous pro-China administration in Manila, tensions had been lowered for several years.
Relations have soured in the past year, however, as President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who authorized the cutting of the cordon, seeks to establish tighter defense ties with 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 that was baseless. China does not recognize the ruling.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo, speaking to reporters about the removal of the barrier, on Tuesday said the move was consistent with the country’s stance on the South China Sea.
“Technically, we had the right to practice our sovereignty and sovereign rights so it would have been consistent with our position,” he said.
– Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty