Philippines intercepts Vietnamese fishing boat in Reed Bank

Camille Elemia and Jason Gutierrez
Philippines intercepts Vietnamese fishing boat in Reed Bank Members of the Philippine Coast Guard approach a Vietnam-flagged fishing vessel in a rubber speed boat in waters around Reed Bank, South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), Feb. 9, 2023.
Handout photo/Philippine Coast Guard

The Philippine Coast Guard said Friday that it intercepted a Vietnam-flagged fishing boat inside Manila’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, days after a Chinese coast guard ship allegedly fired a laser at a Filipino counterpart in EEZ waters.  

The BRP Teresa Magbanua, a 97-meter (318-foot) multi-role response Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ship, encountered the Vietnamese boat engaged in a long-line fishing operation in Recto Bank on Feb. 9, the agency said in a statement.

Reed Bank, known among Filipinos as Recto Bank, is an underwater reef formation that lies northeast of the Spratly Islands and off the Philippine island of Palawan. It is said to contain huge reserves of oil and natural gas.

The PCG crew issued radio challenges and ordered the foreign boat to leave the Philippines’  EEZ. The coast guard ship then deployed rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) “to conduct boarding and inspection,” the statement said. 

The foreign fishing vessel, upon seeing the deployment of RHIBs, secured its lines and immediately departed Recto Bank,” the PCG said in a statement on Friday.

Both the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei, have overlapping claims in the South China Sea. China has claimed sovereignty over most of the area, including Reed Bank, citing historical grounds.

In 2016, a United Nations tribunal ruled in favor of Manila and invalidated Beijing’s expansive claims in the area, but China has refused to acknowledge the verdict.

Despite overlapping claims, Manila and Hanoi have had good relations in recent years, owing to similar experiences in the contested waters.

In 2019, Vietnamese fishermen rescued 22 Filipino counterparts who were left floating at sea after a Chinese vessel rammed and sank their boat near Reed Bank. The owner of the Chinese vessel apologized for the “accident,” a claim disputed by local fishermen.

Hanoi too has accused Beijing of harassing Vietnamese fishermen and sinking their fishing vessels. China has denied this.

More patrols in South China Sea

The deployment of BRP Teresa Magbanua was part of the coast guard’s increased operations in the Philippines’ EEZ in the South China Sea, which Manila refers to as the West Philippine Sea.

The agency said this was an answer to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.s’ directive to “strengthen and increase” their presence in the area.

The crew also boarded Filipino fishing boats in the waters in and around Kalayaan Island Group to advise local fishermen to radio the PCG or Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) shore units in the area for any needed assistance, the coast guard said.

“[PCG] remains firmly committed to safeguarding Philippine interests and rights within the bounds of international law and conventions,” the PCG said.

On Feb. 6, a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship allegedly harassed a PCG vessel with a military-grade laser in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), temporarily blinding members of the Filipino crew.

The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest from Manila, with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr summoning the Chinese envoy to his office – the first time in years that a president did that.

On Friday, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs backed the coast guard’s claims of Chinese harassment in Second Thomas Shoal, after Beijing denied the allegations despite photos and videos provided by the PCG to support the claim.

The foreign office said it stood by the report of the country’s coast guard.

“We are calling on China to desist and restrain from this action because this is not only damaging, but dangerous. It is also destabilizing in terms of stability and peace in the region,” department spokeswoman Ma. Teresita Daza told a press briefing Friday.

The laser incident left PCG crew temporarily blinded while they were supporting a “rotation and resupply mission” for marines stationed aboard a rusting World War-II era ship, which has been grounded in Ayungin to serve as the country’s outpost in the area.

“We have no basis to doubt the report of our Philippine Coast Guard. But from the report, to harass, to shadow, to actually put in danger, not only the vessel, but the crew, and more important to actually target and point a military-grade laser – not just once, but twice – actually is not restrained in all accounts,” Daza said.

Her Chinese counterpart, Wang Wenbin, earlier this week said that officials of both nations had been in touch via a hotline set up between their respective foreign ministries to discuss maritime issues. He denied that their coast guard used lasers on the Filipinos.

“What we’re seeing at this point in time is the lack of congruence between what is actually being said, what is being announced, and what is happening on the ground on the seas,” Daza said. “There has to be some congruence so that relations can actually move forward.”


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