A group of Filipino youth volunteers who sailed to the Scarborough Shoal on Sunday to plant a Philippine flag in the disputed South China Sea outcrop said they were harassed by the Chinese Coast Guard, resulting in a four-hour standoff.
As the group reached the vicinity of the rocky shoal around 7:30 a.m., two Chinese Coast Guard speed boats intercepted them, The Manila Bulletin newspaper reported, citing a statement posted on the Facebook page of the group called Kalayaan Atin Ito (Freedom It’s Ours).
“After a few minutes, the mother Chinese Coast Guard ship and two big Chinese Coast Guard boats arrived. They ordered us to go back to mainland Philippines stating that the ‘lake’ (Scarborough Shoal lagoon) belongs to China,” the statement read.
The group, composed of 15 Filipinos and an American, intended to plant the flag to mark the Philippines’ 118th Independence Day on Sunday.
Ignoring the Chinese Coast Guard’s order, the group started to fish for their lunch.
“We offered food to them. We kept on raising the peace sign with our hands. We turned on the speaker which we brought with us and some of the volunteers danced to the music of Freddie Aguilar (a renowned Filipino folk singer),” according to the statement.
At 11 a.m. two female and three male volunteers attempted to swim to the rock inside the lagoon to plant the Philippine flag and the United Nations (UN) flag “but were harassed” by the Chinese Coast Guard.
The Chinese Coast Guards “chased the swimmers with their two speed boats, circled on them, blocked their path and sprayed water on them using the propeller of the speed boat.”
“Despite the harassment, the swimmers kept on raising the peace sign,” the group said.
Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea and the incident comes as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague prepares to deliver a ruling on a complex case brought by Manila that could dent China’s sweeping sovereignty claim.
The shoal, seized by China after a three-month standoff in 2012, is a bone of contention for the Philippines and its president-elect, Rodrigo Duterte, has vowed not to give way over the right of his country to sail there freely, according to Reuters.
The attempt to plant the flag comes after Duterte himself pledged during his election campaign to do the same, but on China’s manmade islands in the Spratlys, using a jet ski.
Philippine defense and military officials declined to comment on the incident. Beijing stressed that the shoal belonged to China.
“The Scarborough Shoal has been China’s territory since ancient times,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular briefing in Beijing.
“We urge the Philippines to respect China’s sovereignty and refrain from taking provocative actions.”
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