MANILA, Philippines – China insisted it only has 20 fishing vessels in the disputed Scarborough Shoal after the Philippine government protested the supposed presence of up to 92 Chinese vessels in the area.
In a press briefing Wednesday, May 23, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said the number of fishing boats in the area – 20 – is roughly the same as in previous years. “The operating manners of the fishing boats are consistent with China’s relevant laws as well as China’s fishing moratorium orders,” Hong said.
Earlier, the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has monitored at least 16 Chinese fishing vessels and 76 utility boats in Scarborough Shoal as of Tuesday, May 22.
Utility boats, which Hong did not include in the count he released, usually operate alongside bigger fishing vessels.
Hong also failed to mention the presence of Chinese government vessels, which have been in Scarborough Shoal since day one of the standoff. The Philippines monitored at least 5 Chinese government vessels in the area Monday, May 21, as opposed to the 2 government vessels from the Philippines – one from PCG and another from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
The DFA has sent a note verbale to the Chinese embassy regarding the increase in Chinese vessels.
“It is regrettable that these actions occurred at a time when China has been articulating for a de-escalation of tensions and while the two sides have been discussing how to defuse the situation in the area,” the DFA said.
China has been moving toward what seem to be preparations for a military strike, said Southeast Asia maritime analyst Alec Almazan in a Thought Leaders piece for Rappler. (Read: Is China moving to attack the Philippines?)
Before the DFA’s protest, a nuclear-powered United States submarine arrived near Scarborough Shoal in what is seen to be a sign of American support for the Philippines. It left as scheduled Saturday, May 19.
“Virtually undetectable when submerged and bristling with an array of cruise and anti-ship missiles, the deployment of the submarine is meant to send a strong message to China that the US is prepared to defend the Philippines in case of attack,” said Alec Almazan, who works as an analyst for the London-based Lloyd’s List Intelligence Unit.
The Scarborough Shoal standoff between the Philippines and China is now approaching its second month. – Rappler.com