Philippines says no China standoff after removal of floating barrier in South China Sea

Chinese Coast Guard boats close to the floating barrier are pictured near the Scarborough Shoal

Chinese Coast Guard boats close to the floating barrier are pictured on September 20, 2023, near the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, in this handout image released by the Philippine Coast Guard on September 24, 2023. Philippine Coast Guard/Handout via REUTERS Acquire Licensing Rights

MANILA, Sept 26 (Reuters) - The Philippines said on Tuesday there were no signs of a standoff at a fiercely contested, China-held shoal in the South China Sea, a day after its coastguard severed a floating barrier installed by Beijing to block its fishermen.

China's coastguard had even removed remnants of the ball-buoy barrier from the Scarborough Shoal, a Philippine coastguard spokesperson said, adding Beijing was measured in its response to the presence of the vessel, which reached its closest point to the strategic atoll since China seized it in 2012.

With coastguard personnel posing as fishermen in a small boat, the Philippines said on Monday it executed a "special operation" to cut the 300-m (980-ft) barrier at the shoal, one of Asia's most contested maritime features, a move that could further strain ties that have deteriorated in the past year.

Coastguard spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela said four Chinese vessels were in the area when a Philippine ship approached and were "not that aggressive", adding it was clear media were on board the Philippine ship.

The Chinese took away the barrier, a few hours after discovering it was no longer aligned and blocking the lagoon, Tarriela told DWPM radio.

"They might still return the floating barrier once again, they might still do shadowing and dangerous maneouvres once again," he told CNN Philippines, adding that the Philippines "will not back down" and will maintain its presence in the sea.

The Scarborough Shoal, a prime fishing spot about 200 km (124 miles) off the Philippines and within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), has been the site of decades of on-off disputes over sovereignty.

China made no direct mention of the barrier on Monday but its foreign ministry said the coastguard had moved on Friday to repel a Philippine vessel "intruding" in what were indisputably Chinese waters. Japan's government urged restraint.

The Philippines and China have repeatedly sparred over the shoal but under the previous pro-China administration in Manila, tension had been lowered for several years.

But ties have soured this year, as new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who authorised the cutting of the cordon, seeks to strengthen relations with ally the United States.

Such efforts included giving the U.S. military expanded access to Philippine bases.

Vessels of the two countries have faced off several times this year elsewhere in Philippine EEZ, such as at the Second Thomas Shoal.

There Manila has accused China of dangerous and aggressive acts in blocking resupply missions to a handful of troops stationed on a rusty, grounded warship.

China says that occupation is illegal.

Late on Monday Chinese nationalist tabloid the Global Times posted an article that quoted an expert saying Philippine decision-makers were acting under the influence of a United States bent on instigating conflicts in the South China Sea to contain Beijing.

Control of the shoal, about 850 km (528 miles) off mainland China, is a sensitive issue for Beijing, which for the past decade has maintained a constant presence of coastguard ships and fishing vessels there.

The rocky outcrop figured in a case the Philippines took to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which ruled in 2016 that China's claim to most of the South China Sea had no basis under international law.

China does not recognise the ruling.

Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty and Clarence Fernandez

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