04/24/2015, 00.00
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South China Sea: Manila accuses Beijing of "armed robbery"

More clashes between Filipino fishing boats and Chinese vessels in disputed waters. The Chinese Coast Guard reportedly used water cannon against a group of Filipino fishermen; previously some Chinese vessels boarded, threatened with guns and robbed two Philippine ships of their load. Manila to lodge formal protest.

Manila (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The Philippine government has accused the Chinese Coast Guard of robbing some fishermen to a control point, in the context of a series of recent clashes between Manila and Beijing in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

The incident occurred on April 11 last, but only emerged yesterday after an official protest by senior Filipino officials. Witnesses report that a group of Chinese sailors on board three boats belonging to the coast guard, boarded two Philippine ships near the Scarborough Shoal, seizing all the fish caught until then.

In one case the Filipino fishermen "were threatened" at gun point, while "the Chinese forcibly unloaded their cargo”; on completing the operation, the Chinese sailors also destroyed the equipment and material of the Filipino vessels.

The two Chinese ships object of the raid were part of a fleet of 20 vessels, engaged in fishing activities around the Scarborough Shoal, an area rich in fish and within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

A week later, three Chinese coast guard ships fired water cannon against a Philippine fishing vessel, injuring at least three people on the boat and smashing the windows of the ship. "It is unacceptable" remarks Asis Perez, head of the Philippine Department for fisheries, because "the area is within our exclusive economic zone." Nobody has the right to stop us, he adds, these actions violate "international law".

The Manila government, according to President Benigno Aquino, is concerned about the growing tension in the area, following the recent Chinese government actions in months in the contended waters. The Foreign Ministry spokesman says the executive will present a formal protest.

The Scarborough islets are located 220 km from the coast of the Philippine island of Luzon and 650 miles away from the coast of the Chinese island of Hainan. Beijing took control of the area in 2012, following a series of clashes between the Chinese navy and its Philippine counterpart. Since then, Chinese ships have been patrolling the area and attack foreign vessels entering the disputed waters, particularly those flying the flag of the Philippines.

Referring to the clashes in recent days the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the Filipino fishermen did not have Chinese government “permission” to enter the area and asked Manila to "respect the territorial sovereignty" of China. The Philippines – which is seeking a non-binding international ruling at the UN court – together with Vietnam, is increasingly worried about Beijing's imperialism in the South China and East China seas. The Chinese government claims most of the sea (almost 85 per cent), including sovereignty over the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, in opposition to Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. In recent months, China has used various political, economic and diplomatic means to hamper non-Chinese vessels from fishing or moving through the disputed waters.  

For the United States, which backs the claims of Southeast Asia nations, Beijing's so-called 'cow tongue' line – which covers 80% of the 3.5 km2 - is both "illegal" and "irrational". Anyone with a hegemonic sway over the region would have a strategic advantage, in terms of seabed (oil and gas) development, but also in trade since two thirds of the world's maritime trade transit through it.

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