Erik De Castro / Reuters

China, Philippine tensions rise over disputed South China Sea

Beijing demands Manila return seized boat and crew members, as nearby China-Vietnam standoff continues

China has demanded the Philippines release a fishing boat and 11 crew members seized in the disputed South China Sea on Wednesday, the latest flare-up in the oil- and gas-rich waters claimed wholly or in part by six countries.

Chief Superintendent Noel Vargas of the Philippine National Police Maritime Group said a maritime police patrol apprehended a Chinese fishing boat around 7 a.m. off Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly Islands on the South China Sea.

Maritime police discovered about 350 turtles on the vessel, some of which were already dead, a police report said, adding that they had also detained a Philippine boat with 70 turtles on board. Several species of sea turtle are protected under Philippine law.

Police on Wednesday were towing the boats to the city of Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan, where appropriate charges will be filed against their respective crews, Vargas said.

China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea — rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei — called on the Philippines to release the boat and the fishermen. 

"China's Foreign Ministry and China's ambassador to the Philippines have made representations to the Philippines side, demanding that it provide a rational explanation and immediately release the people and the vessel," Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said at a daily news briefing.

"We once again warn the Philippines not to take any provocative actions," she said, adding that China had "indisputable sovereignty" over the Spratly Islands.

While there are frequent standoffs between fishermen and the various claimant states in the South China Sea, the actual detention of Chinese fishermen or the seizure of a boat is rare.

Vietnam, China tensions

Tensions are also brewing in another part of the sea, where China has warned Vietnam not to disturb activities of Chinese companies operating near disputed islands. Earlier, Vietnam condemned the movement of a giant Chinese oil rig into what it said was its territorial waters.

Chinese ships are ramming and spraying water cannons at Vietnamese vessels trying to stop Beijing from setting up an oil rig in the South China Sea, according to Vietnamese officials and video evidence released Wednesday. That represents a dangerous escalation of tensions in disputed waters considered a global flashpoint.

With neither side showing any sign of stepping down, the standoff raises the possibility that more serious clashes could break out. Vietnam said several boats have been damaged and six people on the vessels have been injured by broken glass.

Vietnam, which has no hope of standing up to China militarily, said it wants a peaceful solution and — unlike China — hasn't sent any navy ships to areas close to the $1 billion deep-sea rig. But a top official warned that "all restraint has a limit."

"Our maritime police and fishing protection forces have practiced extreme restraint; we will continue to hold on there," Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of Vietnam's coast guard, told a news conference in Hanoi. "But if [the Chinese ships] continue to ram into us, we will respond with similar self-defense."

China's stationing of the oil rig, which was accompanied by a flotilla of military and civilian ships, on May 1 has been seen as one of its most provocative steps in a gradual campaign of asserting its sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Vietnam immediately dispatched marine police and fishery protection vessels to the area, but they were harassed as they approached, Thu said.

Spokeswoman Hua told a regular news briefing Wednesday that the oil rig was in China's territorial waters and therefore drilling is "normal and legal."  

"The disruptive activities by the Vietnamese side are in violation of China's sovereign rights," she said.

Wire services

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