WASHINGTON D.C. - The United States expressed concern today about rising tensions in the South China Sea, including reports that China has blocked the entry of fishing boats in Scarborough Shoal.
Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy spokesman for the State Department, said the US was closely watching the situation. “Recent developments include an uptick in confrontational rhetoric, disagreements over resource exploitation, coercive economic actions and incidents around Scarborough Reef, including the use of barriers to deny access,” he said in a statement.
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin revealed yesterday that Chinese fishermen had roped off the mouth of the resources-rich lagoon to prevent other fishermen from getting in. Citing reports from the Coast Guard, he said the Chinese used ropes and buoys to block entry to the horseshoe-shaped reef.
Scarborough Shoal is a little over a hundred miles from the Zambales coastline on the main Philippine island of Luzon.
US warships operating from Subic Base frequently passed through this area when America still had military bases in the Philippines. The nearest Chinese land feature is about 400 miles to the west.
Reports from Manila indicated chances of a clash are remote for now because bad weather is preventing fishermen from sailing to the area. But that could change when the weather improves.
Gazmin said he is keeping communication lines open with his counterpart, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie to avoid a confrontation at Scarborough Shoal.
Ventrell reiterated the US position of neutrality in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea but added, “we believe nations in the region should work collaboratively and diplomatically to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without the use of force.”
American officials usually do not comment without prompting on the South China Sea issue but some Filipino-Americans here say China might have crossed a red line when it blocked off access to Scarborough Shoal.
Ventrell explained that US national interest in the region lay in maintaining peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation and “unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea.”
He added that China’s move to build new military outposts in the disputed waters and upgrading “Sansha” – it’s name for the Spratly Islands – into a city “run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region.”