The Philippine coastguard has promised to “do whatever it takes” to remove any more floating barriers installed by China at a disputed reef in the South China Sea.
Friday’s remarks come after an aerial inspection of Scarborough Shoal on Thursday confirmed a 300-metre (984-foot) barrier that ignited the latest diplomatic row between Beijing and Manila had been taken away.
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The floating barrier was found across the entrance to the shoal last week during a routine Philippine government resupply mission to Filipino fisherfolk.
In a special operation ordered by President Ferdinand Marcos, Philippine Coast Guard personnel cut a rope tethering the barrier to an anchor, allowing it to drift.
“In the next coming months, if ever that barrier will once again be in place, the Philippine Coast Guard will do whatever it takes for us to remove the barrier,” spokesperson Jay Tarriela told reporters as he sat next to the anchor seized during the mission.
In his first public remarks on the incident, Marcos said on Friday his government was “not looking for trouble”.
But he insisted it would “continue to defend the Philippines, the maritime territory of the Philippines, the rights of our fishermen to ply their trade in the areas where they have been fishing for hundreds of years”.
After the Philippine coastguard dismantled the barrier at the mouth of Scarborough Shoal, Philippine fishing boats entered the shallow lagoon and caught about 164 tonnes of fish in one day, Marcos said.
“That’s what our fishermen lose so there should not be a barrier there, and it’s clear the area is within the Philippines,” he said. “Our fishermen have been fishing in those areas for hundreds of years so I can’t understand why that has changed.”
Earlier this week, China warned the Philippines not to “stir up trouble” over the incident that ignited a war of words between the countries.
China’s coastguard said on Wednesday it deployed the line of buoys after the Philippine vessel’s “intrusion into the lagoon”.
US commends ‘bold step’
China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, seized Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012. Since then, Beijing deployed patrol boats that Manila says harass Philippine vessels.
During Thursday’s aerial surveillance, officials identified three Chinese coastguard ships, including two inside the reef, which issued six radio challenges to the aircraft. A fourth vessel was described as a “militia” boat.
A small number of Philippine fishing boats was also spotted outside the turquoise waters of the shoal.
A senior US Defense Department official on Thursday praised the Philippines’ actions to remove the barrier as a “bold step”, and said the United States stood by its security commitments to the country.
“The department has been incredibly clear that when it comes to our treaty commitments to the Philippines, we believe an armed attack against Philippine Armed Forces, public vessels, aircraft, apply to the South China Sea. That includes the Philippine Coast Guard,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Lindsey Ford told a congressional hearing.