A fisherman from Pag-asa Island in Kalayaan municipality has reported an incident involving a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel that reportedly harassed his small outrigger boat while he was en route to a sandbar to fish for food.
Larry Hugo, 42, told Palawan News he was sailing towards a nearby sandbar early Monday, January 25, when a CCG vessel maneuvered to block his way forcing him to turn around.
Hugo narrated that he was sailing towards Sandbar 2 trailed by another small fishing boat from the island where they usually go to catch fish that morning when a CCG vessel, which he noted was marked with bow number 5103, aggressively maneuvered to block their path from a distance of only about 100 meters, forcing him to turn back.
“Hinarang kami sa dadaanan namin, (crossed) ‘yong dadaanan namin akala namin lalampas,” Hugo said. He said he could see the vessel’s crew recording him on video and he decided to turn back, fearing he might be bombarded by water canons.
“Wala akong nakitang nagpa-patrol. Bumalik ako, at sinabihan ‘yong ibang mangingisda na umiwas muna doon,” Hugo said.
He said he took a video clip of the CCG vessel when he reached a farther distance from it.
He told Palawan News he was “traumatized” by the sudden presence of the CCG vessel that he decided to head back to Pag-Asa. He said he reported the incident to barangay officials when he got back to the island.
No Philippine government reaction
The Naval Forces West (NFW), in an initial statement, said it has no knowledge of the incident because it was not reported in their detachment in Pag Asa. It said it will conduct its own verification.
“Per verification at Pag-asa [Island] detachment, there was no reported incident of harassment of fishermen in the sandbars thereat. Your Naval Forces West, especially the security personnel deployed in the different KIG (Kalayaan Islands group) features continue to uphold and protect the safety of our Filipino fishermen,” the statement said.
Kalayaan mayor Roberto del Mundo confirmed that the sandbars around Pag-asa have been frequented by Chinese patrols and that they have been given instructions by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) units to avoid these areas.
“Kami naman ay sumusunod lang sa kautusan ng ating national lalong-lalo na sa Western Command (WESCOM) at sa Department of National Defense (DND). Laging sinasabi na huwag na muna maglalapit dyan sa mga lugar na yan kasi napaka-delikado nga,” Mayor Del Mundo said.
Del Mundo denied, however, that the incident involved “harassment” on the part of the Chinese Coast Guard.
“Hindi rin talaga siya hinarang. Sinundan lang siya para hindi makarating doon sa pupuntahan niya. Hindi naman nangha-harass yang mga yan, parang binubugaw ka lang at wala naman harassment katulad doon sa Scarborough (Shoal) na inispreyan ng tubig,” del Mundo said.
New Chinese posture
The incident followed an announcement by Beijing that it has allowed its naval assets to deploy to the South China Sea to enforce its claim of sovereignty over the entire body of water. It had also announced plans to conduct a military exercise at the Gulf of Tonkin near the Vietnamese territory.
On January 22, China’s top legislative body, National People’s Congress Standing Committee, authorized the CCG to use “any means necessary” in all areas where China claims jurisdiction.
Tension has been building up in the region, marked by the United States’ move, following the inauguration of its new president Joe Biden to send its aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the area to conduct a “freedom of the seas” voyage.
Some islands and islets near Kalayaan town, which is 280 nautical miles northwest of Puerto Princesa City and 932 kilometers southwest of Metro Manila, has been the center of a dispute between neighboring countries that have overlapping claims at the West Philippine Sea.
The latest reported incident was in February 2020 involving a standoff between BRP Conrado Yap and a Chinese warship when a Chinese corvette warship pointed its gun control director (GCD) towards BRP Conrado Yap (PS39) with “hostile intent”.