Monday, July 11, 2016

China’s Menacing Words for a Boat in Disputed Waters: ‘Get Out!’

Fishermen in Subic Bay, the Philippines, say Chinese ships have harassed them in the South China Sea. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times.


SCARBOROUGH SHOAL, South China Sea — We could see the glistening turquoise waters in the distance, a haven where deep-sea waves soften and, fishermen say, the grouper and snapper could feed a village for eternity.

But guarding the waters, the mouth of Scarborough Shoal, was a 130-foot Chinese Coast Guard ship. If we were to get more than a glimpse of this speck of coral and rock — the latest potential point of contention between China and the United States in the South China Sea — our boat would have to be quick.

Capt. Alex O. Tagapan, who usually takes tourists on sightseeing cruises, steered toward the entrance of the boomerang-shaped atoll and accelerated. Turning to a small statue of Santo Niño de Cebú, a patron saint of the Philippines known for miraculous powers, he prayed.

Within minutes, the Chinese sent a speedboat painted with the coast guard’s red stripes racing toward us. “Get out! Get out!” a man on the boat wearing a bamboo hat and an orange vest shouted in English, waving his arms.

Over the past two years, China has worked to strengthen its claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea, dredging sand to turn scattered reefs and atolls into islands despite protests from neighbors and the United States.

Now, China is said to be considering plans to build Scarborough Shoal into an island, too, an effort that would be its most ambitious and provocative yet. China would gain an outpost on the eastern side of the sea, more than 530 miles from its mainland but just 140 miles from the Philippines.

That could bolster China’s claim to the sea, including oil exploration and fishing rights, and could substantially extend its radar, air and missile coverage, including over United States forces in the Philippines.

Last month, I set out to see this patch of water, which has inspired bluster from two superpowers but which Charles Darwin once described in almost poetic terms: “a hundred fathoms, colored blue.”

(More here.)


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