MANILA/BEIJING – China has demanded the Philippines release a Chinese fishing boat and its crew seized in the disputed South China Sea on Wednesday, the latest flare-up in the oil and gas-rich waters that are claimed wholly or in part by six nations.
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, Hanoi condemned the movement of a giant Chinese oil rig into what it said was its territorial waters.
Dozens of patrol boats and other navy and coast guard vessels from both countries were in the area, Vietnamese officials say. Some collisions had taken place, a navy official said without giving details, but they appeared to be minor.
“No shots have been fired yet,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media. “Vietnam won’t fire unless China fires first.”
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. on Tuesday off Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
The boat has 11 crew and police found about 350 turtles on the vessel, some of which were already dead, a police report said, adding that a Philippine boat and crew was also seized, and found to have 70 turtles on board. Several species of sea turtles are protected under Philippine law.
Maritime police are now towing the boats to the town of Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan, where appropriate charges will be filed against them, Vargas said.
China — which claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei — said the Philippines must 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,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told 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 Spratlys.
There are frequent tensions in the South China Sea between China and the other claimant nations, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which say Beijing has harassed their ships in the waters there.
While there are frequent standoffs between fishermen and the various claimant states in the South China Sea, the actual detention of Chinese fishermen or boat seizure is rare.
An oil industry official in China said the deployment of the rig owned by China’s state-run CNOOC oil company to waters near Vietnam appeared to be a political decision rather than a commercial one.
“This reflected the will of the central government and is also related to the U.S. strategy on Asia,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It is not commercially driven. It is also not like CNOOC has set a big exploration blueprint for the region.”
Hua, responding to U.S. criticism of the movement of the oil rig into waters that Vietnam says are its territory, said the issue had nothing to do with the United States, or Vietnam.
The incidents come days after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Asia to underline his commitment to allies there, including Japan and the Philippines, both locked in territorial disputes with China.