Marcos says Philippines is not looking for trouble but will defend waters against Chinese aggression

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine president said Friday that his country does not want a confrontation but will staunchly defend its waters after its coast guard dismantled a floating barrier placed by China at a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

It was the first time President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has spoken publicly against China's installation of the 300-meter (980-foot) -long barrier at the entrance to Scarborough Shoal which was dismantled at his order.

"We're not looking for trouble, but what we’ll do is to continue defending the maritime territory of the Philippines and the rights of our fishermen, who have been fishing in those areas for hundreds of years,” Marcos said in response to a question at a news briefing in southern Surigao del Norte province.

The latest flare-up between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest trade routes, comes after Marcos decided earlier this year to allow an expansion of the U.S. military presence in the Philippines under a 2014 defense pact.

The prospect of more American forces in local military camps in the northern Philippines across from Taiwan and southern China alarmed and infuriated Beijing.

After the Philippine coast guard dismantled the rope and net barrier at the mouth of Scarborough Shoal, Filipino fishing boats entered the shallow lagoon and caught about 164 tons of fish in one day, Marcos said.

“That's what our fishermen lose, so there should not be a barrier there, and it’s clear the area is within the Philippines,” he said. “Our fishermen have been fishing in those areas for hundreds of years so I can’t understand why that has changed.

A Philippine surveillance aircraft deployed Thursday spotted two Chinese coast guard vessels closely guarding the shoal's entrance, making it still difficult for Filipino fishermen to gain entry into the fishing lagoon, Philippine coast guard spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela said during a news conference Friday.

Amid China's effort to play down the Philippine coast guard's disabling of the barrier, Tarriela showed journalists one of two metal anchors he said Filipino coast guard personnel removed recently from Scarborough's entrance to knock the barrier down.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday that the shoal “is China's inherent territory."

"What the Philippines (has) done is nothing but a farce that entertains itself. China will continue to safeguard the territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests of Huangyan Island,” he said, using the Chinese name for Scarborough.

Although Marcos has tried to nurture normal ties with China, the long-simmering territorial disputes have put the Asian neighbors on a potential collision course, with the Philippine leader vowing his country would not yield even “an inch” of territory in the strategic waterway.

Marcos's more confrontational stance contrasts with that of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who nurtured cozy ties with China and Russia while often criticizing U.S. and Western security policies.

Under Marcos, who took office last year, the Philippines has intensified its efforts to fight China’s increasingly aggressive actions in one of the world’s most hotly contested waters. The Philippine coast guard often invites journalists to join its patrols in an effort to expose what it calls Chinese bullying in the busy waterway.

In addition to China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are also involved in the territorial conflicts in the South China Sea, which has long been regarded as a potential Asian flashpoint and a delicate fault line in the U.S.-China rivalry in the region.

Washington lays no claim to the sea passageway but U.S. Navy ships and fighter jets have carried out patrols for decades to challenge China’s expansive claims and promote freedom of navigation and overflight. It has warned that it’s obligated to defend the Philippines under a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty if Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under attack, including in the South China Sea.