China "Ropes Off" Scarborough Shoal to Keep Out Philippine Boats

Floating Barrier
Chinese forces deployed this barrier across the sole entrance channel to Scarborough's inner lagoon, according to the PCG (PCG image)

Published Sep 24, 2023 5:16 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Philippine Coast Guard reports that Chinese forces have installed a floating barrier across the entrance to Scarborough Shoal, a coral atoll which is a prime fishing destination for Philippine artisanal fishing boats. 

The crew of the Philippine Coast Guard cutter BRP Datu Bankaw discovered the barrier when they approached the shoal on Friday. As they neared, three China Coast Guard RIB boats and a small boat from a Chinese maritime militia vessel towed a floating barrier of about 300 meters in length across the entrance. 

Philippine fishermen also reported that Chinese forces put out this barrier whenever a Philippine fishing fleet arrives in the area.

During the BRP Datu Bankaw's visit to Scarborough, there were about 50 artisanal fishing boats nearby, and officers aboard the cutter distributed fuel, supplies and food to the fleet to sustain their operations. About 54 boats received food packages and a combined 60,000 liters of diesel, according to PTV.

The Philippine Coast Guard has recently embedded reporters aboard its cutters to document interactions with the China Coast Guard, resulting in extensive coverage of Chinese force employment (even in overseas papers). Heightened public awareness of these longstanding patterns of confrontation (which have occurred for years) has generated a new political commitment to push back against Chinese incursions. 

"I would like to request our Philippine Coast Guard to immediately cut and remove all these illegal structures located in our West Philippine Sea not just to assert our sovereign rights to the area but to protect our fishermen from any possible accidents that may arise from these illegal structures,” said Philippine Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri in a statement Sunday. 

The Philippine government claims Scarborough Shoal as its own, and it is within the Philippine EEZ, but it has been occupied by Chinese forces since 2012. The China Coast Guard and Chinese maritime militia have defended the shoal against Philippine interests ever since.

Scarborough Shoal's 50-square-mile inner lagoon is a productive fishing ground. The sole entrance channel is at the southeastern corner (NASA / Landsat)

China asserts that it controls the shoal under its "nine-dash line" maritime boundary claim, along with the vast majority of the South China Sea. In a suit brought by the Philippines in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled against China and found that its sweeping maritime claims had no basis in international law. China denounced the arbitral proceeding, refused to participate in the hearings, and ignored the ruling.