China Coast Guard Challenges Merchant Ship Near Contested Reef

Green Aura at her naming ceremony, 2019 (Aegean Tankers)

Published Nov 4, 2019 2:10 PM by The Maritime Executive

During a recent transit past disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, the Greek-owned tanker Green Aura was harassed by Chinese government vessels, her master told Philippine media last week. Though Scarborough is claimed by the Philippines and is located within Philippine waters, the administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has insisted that it will not raise the matter with Beijing. 

The Green Aura's master, Philippine national Capt. Manolo Ebora, told Philippine outlet Rappler that he diverted to Scarborough during a voyage from the Nong Yao offshore oilfield in the Gulf of Thailand to the port of Longkou, China. He serves as a reservist in the Philippine Navy, and he said that his goal was to see whether reports of a Chinese presence at Scarborough were accurate. 

On September 30, the Green Aura approached Scarborough on a course that would put her within six nm of the shoal. As she neared the reef, she was hailed by a "Chinese naval warship," which may have been one of four China Coast Guard vessels broadcasting AIS in the vicinity of the shoal. The Chinese vessel ordered Green Aura to alter course to starboard to give the shoal a wider berth, and one of the China Coast Guard ships moved to cut across the bow of the 110,000 dwt merchant tanker. 

“This is China Coast Guard. This area is under the jurisdiction of Chinese government. You should keep away from this area,” an officer aboard the Chinese vessel reportedly told Green Aura over VHF. 

Capt. Ebora responded that his vessel was engaged in innocent passage through Philippine waters. After transiting past the island, he altered course to de-escalate the situation.

On Sunday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana reiterated that Scarborough is within the Philippine EEZ, but he downplayed the seriousness of the run-in. “Since the Green Aura, a Liberian ship, was able to safely reach its intended port of destination unimpeded, we believe that what happened should not be blown out of proportion or sensationalized," he said. "We, however, would like to reiterate our call for all countries to exercise prudence and respect freedom of navigation and passage in the West Philippine Sea."

Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo went further, saying that if the Philippine government protested the Chinese behavior, it would put “at risk the employment of more than 400,000 deployed Filipino seafarers and mariners, by sending a message to shipping companies of our country’s inclination to meddle with or interfere into their own maritime affairs for the sole reason that a Filipino is under their employ.”

"There was no threat to the lives of our countrymen despite the ship captain’s engaging in retorts about an issue sensitive to our foreign relations concerning our seas," Panelo said. 

The Duterte administration has worked hard to improve economic and political ties with China, and it has downplayed the longstanding tensions between the two nations over maritime claims in the South China Sea. Beijing asserts that the overwhelming majority of the area is its "inherent territory" by virtue of "historical right," including waters located hundreds of miles from the nearest Chinese shores. It has strengthened its position by seizing and fortifying a string of land features in the Paracel and Spratly Islands.