A diver wearing a snorkel and T-shirt cut through a Chinese territorial barrier with a knife in a growing confrontation over disputed islands.
The 300-metre rope, linking a cordon of buoys, had been placed by the Chinese coastguard around the Scarborough Shoal, a small but strategic reef 130 miles west of the Philippine island of Luzon.
The Philippines said it took “decisive action” to sever the rope, publishing footage of a coastguard diver cutting through the barrier on the orders of the president.
China warned the Philippines on Tuesday “not to make provocations or seek troubles”, and the incident came amid growing global concern over Chinese influence in the Pacific region.
On Tuesday, in what was which was widely viewed as a veiled reference to China, General Manoj Pande, India’s army chief, warned: “We are witnessing manifestations of interstate contestations and competition.”
Tension between China and the Philippines has been building, with Manila increasingly challenging Beijing’s controversial claims over 90 per cent of the resource-rich South China Sea.
Alongside the footage of the diver was another video showing the crew of a boat removing the anchor of the de facto blockade.
The coastguard had successfully removed the barrier “in compliance with presidential instruction,” said Commodore Jay Tarriela, a Philippine coastguard spokesman, referring to the maritime feature by its Filipino name, Bajo de Masinloc (BDM).
“The barrier posed a hazard to navigation – a clear violation of international law. It also hinders the conduct of fishing and livelihood activities of Filipino fisherfolk in BDM, which is an integral part of the Philippine national territory,” he added.
Scarborough Shoal lies within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines as defined by international maritime law and underscored by a ruling of the International Court of Arbitration in 2016, to which China has refused to adhere.
Beijing asserts that the area, along with many other reefs, rocks and features of the sea claimed by neighbouring countries, is its own territory. It refers to the shoal as Huangyan Island.
In a regular foreign ministry briefing on Tuesday, spokesman Wang Wenbin said: “China is resolved in safeguarding its sovereignty and maritime interests over Huangyan Island.”
Chinese state media outlet Global Times described the controversy as “unsuccessful hype by the Philippine side in collaboration with Western media” that was intended to “create a false narrative that portrays China as a ‘bully’.”
Filipino fishermen have regularly claimed that intimidation by China’s so-called maritime militia is preventing them from accessing their traditional fishing grounds and damaging their income.
Last month, Chinese coastguard ships were also filmed firing water cannons at close range at Philippines supply vessels en route to another disputed shoal where Filipino troops have been stationed for decades.
The incident drew widespread international condemnation, including from the US and UK, over “dangerous” manoeuvres by Chinese vessels that posed “serious risks to regional peace and stability”.
China’s assertive reach over large swathes of the East China and South China Seas has rattled Beijing’s Asian neighbours, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Japan, which have competing territorial claims.
Beyond its maritime disputes, Beijing’s relationship with New Delhi has been deteriorating since 2020, when a clash along the ill-defined border in the Himalayan Ladakh region left 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers dead.
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