China 'boosting shoal defence'

CHINA - China is fortifying its barricade around Scarborough shoal, a rich fishing ground in the South China Sea also claimed by the Philippines.

Recent surveillance photos show the ropes and buoys that used to barricade the mouth of Scarborough's large lagoon have been replaced by the Chinese with nets tied to large posts, according to a security analyst.

The reinforced barricade was apparently meant to keep out Filipino fishermen who had been sneaking into the lagoon with canoes to trawl for tuna, blue marlin, grouper and lobster, said the analyst. He spoke to The Straits Times on condition he not be named as he is also a private consultant to the Philippine military.

Mr Charles Jose, a foreign ministry spokesman, said: "We have yet to verify that report."

Scarborough, called Panatag (calm) by the Philippines, is a chain of reefs and outcrops surrounding a lagoon, forming an atoll of about 150 sq km.

China roped off Scarborough, which it refers to as Huangyan, in 2012, when it figured in a tense standoff with the Philippines. On April 8 that year, the Philippine Navy sent a frigate to seize eight Chinese fishing boats it suspected of trafficking in protected marine life near Scarborough. Two Chinese maritime surveillance ships soon arrived, leading to a standoff that lasted for two months.

The United States mediated a deal that required both sides to withdraw; the Philippines pulled out its ships, but China stayed.

In an interview with The New York Times early this year, Philippine President Benigno Aquino likened China's actions to Nazi Germany's annexation of Czechoslovakia, prompting strong protests from Beijing. Since the standoff, China's surveillance ships have been chasing away Filipino fishermen.

In January, a Chinese vessel fired a water cannon at Filipino fishermen seeking shelter from a typhoon inside the lagoon. Fishermen complain that China's blockade has deprived them of a fishing ground that had been theirs for decades. Many have already sold their boats and turned to other work.

China claims ownership of nearly all of the South China Sea, including Scarborough.

The Philippines maintains that Scarborough lies just 198km from its coasts and is within its 200-nautical mile "exclusive economic zone".

Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have competing claims with China over various islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea.

The security analyst also disclosed that latest photos provided by the US of another disputed shoal, Fiery Cross, show "massive" reclamation that could soon turn what used to be just a reef into the biggest island fortress in the South China Sea.

"That would surely be a game changer," he said.

This article was first published on December 5, 2014.
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