(MENAFN- Asia Times) MANILA –“What we will do is to continue defending the Philippines, the maritime territory of the Philippines, the rights of our fishermen to catch fish in areas where they are doing it for hundreds of years already,” Philippine President Marcos Jr told reporters amid rising tensions in the South China Sea.
This week, China openly warned authorities in Manila“not to provoke or stir up trouble” following the Philippine Coast Guard's decision to cut a 300-meter floating barrier installed by Chinese forces around the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.
Rich in fisheries resources and vital to the livelihood of coastal communities in nearby Philippine provinces, the shoal has been under Beijing's de facto control following a months-long naval showdown with Manila in 2012.
Located just over 200 kilometers off its coast, Manila claims the shoal as part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. In contrast, China's nearest province of Hainan is nearly 900 kilometers away.
A 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) found the resource-rich lagoon within the shoal as a
common fishing ground” for multiple littoral states in the area. Accordingly, it censured China for blocking other countries, especially the Philippines, from exercising its sovereign rights in the area.
“[I]n terms of taking down the barrier, I don't see what else we could do,” the Filipino president lamented, seemingly perplexed over China's recent actions and public threats.“I don't understand why this happened,” Marcos Jr added.
Peeved by Manila's defiance, China's foreign ministry has underscored its commitment to“uphold the sovereignty and maritime rights and interests of the Huangyan island [Scarborough Shoal.]”
Shortly after, China flexed its muscles by issuing a warning over planned military exercises in some parts of the South China Sea without providing specific details.
China, which earlier hoped for a“new golden era” of bilateral relations under Marcos Jr., is also seemingly perplexed by the sharp deterioration in ties in recent months.
As a result, there are growing worries over the possibility that the two neighbors will sleepwalk into conflict, with Manila's allies in the West also preparing for contingencies in the South China Sea.
Not long ago, Manila and Beijing enjoyed an unprecedented era of warm relations. During former president Rodrigo Duterte's term, top Chinese diplomats described the Filipino leader as Beijing's“most respected friend.”
Shortly after his emphatic election victory, largely thanks to the support of the Dutertes, Marcos Jr vowed to“shift [bilateral ties] to a higher gear.” Accordingly, the Filipino president chose – similar to his pro-China predecessor – Beijing, rather than Tokyo or Washington, as his first major foreign destination.
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