Philippine officials say China blocked access to disputed South China Sea atoll
MANILA – China sent several ships to a disputed atoll in the South China Sea, preventing Filipino fishermen from accessing traditional fishing grounds and raising tensions in the volatile region, Philippine officials said on Wednesday.
China had sent as many as seven ships to Quirino Atoll, also known as Jackson Atoll, in recent weeks, said Eugenio Bito-onon Jr, the mayor of nearby Pagasa Island in the Spratly Islands.
The Spratlys are the most contested archipelago in the South China Sea, a resource-rich region and critical shipping lane linking North Asia to Europe, South Asia and the Middle East.
“This is very alarming, Quirino is on our path when we travel from Palawan to Pagasa. It is halfway and we normally stop there to rest,” Bito-onon Jr told Reuters.
“I feel something different. The Chinese are trying to choke us by putting an imaginary checkpoint there. It is a clear violation of our right to travel, impeding freedom of navigation,” he said.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China’s Ministry of Transport had sent vessels to tow a grounded foreign ship and they had since left the surrounding waters.
“To guarantee safety of navigation and of work conditions, China urged fishing vessels near the site to leave,” Hong said, adding that China had indisputable sovereignty over the atoll.
The Philippines Foreign Ministry said Chinese coast guard vessels had been seen at the atoll two weeks ago but were not in the area on Wednesday.