By Greg Torode and Karen Lema

HONG KONG/MANILA (Reuters) – Satellite images of the hotly contested Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea show a new floating barrier at its entrance, near where Philippine ships and Chinese coast guard vessels have had frequent clashes.

One of the images taken by Maxar Technologies on February 22 and seen by Reuters showed the barrier blocking the mouth of the sandbar, where the Chinese coast guard claimed last week to have scared off a Philippine ship by “trespassing” into the waters. from Beijing.

The Philippines, which last week deployed a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) ship to patrol the sandbar and transport fuel to Filipino fishermen in the area, said China’s claims were “inaccurate” and that the Manila’s activities there were legal.

China claims Scarborough Shoal, although it lies within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. An international arbitration court in The Hague said in 2016 that China’s claims had no legal basis, a decision Beijing rejected.

That makes the atoll one of the most disputed maritime features in Asia and a flashpoint for diplomatic clashes over sovereignty and fishing rights.

The satellite image reinforces a report and video distributed by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on Sunday showing two Chinese coast guard inflatable boats deploying floating barriers at the entrance to the sandbar on February 22.

The PCG said a Chinese coast guard ship followed the BFAR ship, “conducted blocking maneuvers” about 1.3 nautical miles (2.4 km) from the sandbar and approached it.

“We can assume that (the barrier) is intended for Philippine government vessels because they install it every time they check our presence in the vicinity of BDM,” said Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson Jay Tarriela, referring to Bajo de Masinloc, in Manila. name of the sandbank.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said “Huangyan Dao,” the Chinese name for the sandbar, was “China’s inherent territory.”

“Recently, the Philippine side has taken a series of actions to violate China’s sovereignty” in the shoal waters, he said. “China has to take necessary measures to firmly safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.”

Another satellite image showed what Maxar Technologies described as “possible Chinese interception of a BFAR vessel” at Scarborough Shoal.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion in annual maritime trade. Its territorial claims overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

“What we are seeing now at Scarborough Shoal is probably the beginning of Beijing’s reaction against Manila’s reaction,” said Ian Storey, a senior researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr took office in June 2022, the Philippines has challenged China’s presence in Scarborough and its attempts to stop the resupply of Philippine troops stationed at Second Thomas Shoal, he said.

“China’s attempts to prevent Filipino fishermen from fishing in Scarborough Shoal are absolutely illegal,” Storey said. “The 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling gave fishermen from both countries the right to (fish there). Manila simply supports the legitimate rights of Filipino fishermen.”

The sandbar is coveted for its abundant fish populations and a stunning turquoise lagoon that provides a safe haven for boats during storms.

The Chinese removed the barrier a few hours after the BFAR ship departed, Tarriela said. It was not clear from the photographs how robust the barrier was and whether it would have posed an obstacle to larger warships.

In an article on Sunday, state media Global Times said that “the Philippines has unilaterally abused and sabotaged the foundation of Beijing’s goodwill toward Manila” that allowed Filipino fishermen to operate nearby, working against China’s sovereignty and jurisdiction. .

“If such provocations persist, China may be forced to take more effective measures to control the situation,” the article said, citing experts.

(Reporting by Greg Torode in Hong Kong and Karen Lema in Manila; Additional reporting by Liz Lee in Beijing; Writing by Karen Lema. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

By Sam