South China Sea: Manila rejects Chinese account, says coastguard blocked fishing boat rescue

After China said its coastguard helped to rescue two Filipino fishermen near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines has alleged that the Chinese obstructed its own rescue attempt.

Saturday’s incident was the latest involving the rival claimants in the South China Sea, after a string of confrontations in the past year including collisions, the use of water cannon by the Chinese side and their first “boarding inspection” two weeks ago, as well as a war of narratives.

Video clips from the scene released by both sides on Sunday showed a half-sunken Philippine fishing boat, with China Coast Guard (CCG) patrol ship 3105 and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel MRRV 4407 nearby.

The accident was caused by an engine explosion on the fishing boat, which resulted in serious injuries to the two fishermen and also nearly sank the boat.

“A CCG vessel quickly arrived at the location of the distressed Philippine fishing boat to carry out a rescue operation by releasing small boats,” a voice-over on the nearly two-minute video clip from the Chinese coastguard said.

The video showed two rigid-hull inflatable boats being deployed from the CCG patrol ship 3105. These approached the sinking boat and officers in uniform on board were shown throwing lifebuoys and life jackets to a person in the water.

The incident came a fortnight after Beijing issued new administrative guidelines for its coastguard in dealing with trespassers within what it claims as Chinese territory. The new rules, which took effect on June 15, lay down standard procedures involving foreign nationals including a requirement that the whole process be recorded.

But the Philippine Coast Guard rejected the Chinese account of events.

In a post on his X account on Sunday, spokesman Jay Tarriela said that the two CCG inflatable boats were in the area “not to assist the PCG, but to obstruct and hinder their efforts in rescuing the two injured Filipino fishermen, who suffered second-degree burns”.

“Despite the interference from the Chinese Coast Guard, the PCG, in close coordination with the Filipino fishermen, managed to outmanoeuvre the [Chinese boats] and successfully transfer the injured fishermen for immediate first aid,” the post said.

Videos posted by Tarriela showed the Philippine coastguard towing away the fishing boat, with the CCG patrol ship and the small boats keeping watch.

The Scarborough Shoal, called Huangyan Island by China and Panatag Shoal by the Philippines, has long been a main focus of maritime disputes between the two sides. Weeks of stand-off in 2012 sparked a diplomatic crisis and the Chinese have since maintained control of the reef.

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Livelihoods lost: The fishermen snared in the Scarborough Shoal dispute

Livelihoods lost: The fishermen snared in the Scarborough Shoal dispute

The dispute was also the trigger for Manila to move a Hague-based tribunal which ruled in its favour in 2016. But Beijing neither participated in the process nor accepted the ruling.

Tensions have escalated again in the past year, as Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr boosts the US defence alliance in seeking to counter Beijing’s maritime assertiveness, in a departure from the policies of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.

In the latest escalation, Chinese coastguard boats on June 17 intercepted a Philippine naval resupply mission for troops stationed on the Second Thomas Shoal, another disputed hotspot, citing the new administrative guidelines.

Eight Philippine sailors were injured in the clash, including one who lost a thumb.

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