'Watching our every move' How South China Sea row saw Beijing spy on BBC crew


Last month, state television in China showed footage of day-and-night drills being carried out on the South China Sea by the nation’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). These operations were reportedly in response to the increased activity of the US Navy in the region. The waters have become a major sticking point in the East, with China claiming ownership of the world’s most lucrative strip of water.

China is protective over what operations are carried out there, as a BBC crew found out in a video posted to Youtube last year demonstrated.

In footage captured by the crew, they can be seen being watched by a series of Chinese vessels as they travel across the rich waters.

Howard Johnson, then the BBC’s Philippines correspondent, said: “So there’s a Chinese coast guard vessel that’s watching us at the moment it’s done three sweeps. First of all 200 metres away, then 100 metres away, and now 50 meters away.

“It’s watching our every move.

“There are currently four Chinese vessels patrolling this area on the outskirts of the shoal so you may be wondering how we got inside the shoal itself, but we are travelling in a small boat and that means that we could move across the shallow parts of the reef to move into the area without having to go through the main entrance which has a deeper entry point.”

He added: “I spoke to the captain of our crew and he told me in the past, pre-2012, before China claimed this as their territory, that this area used to be swarming with trawler ships and fishermen from Taiwan, from China, from the Philippines and from Vietnam.

“But now it’s relatively quiet.”

Last, Japan declared its support for more European influence in the South, and East, China Sea.

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A statement from the embassy said that the vessel was “participating in the system to fight against the circumvention of United Nations Security Council sanctions by North Korea”.

They added: “It is one element of our work for the benefit of security in the Indo-Pacific region.”

The French and German efforts were among the first in Europe to join the UK in sending vessels to the region in 2021.

With most neighbouring South China Sea nations opposed to Beijing’s claim of sovereignty in the waters, fears of war have been sparked.

US Republican Senator James Inhofe claimed Beijing is “preparing for World War 3” in the South China Sea, adding it was “the most dangerous situation that we’ve ever seen before”.

In 2020, the US approved its bill to boost its military presence with its multi-billion-dollar plan.

Mr Inhofe’s views were echoed by Democrat Jack Reed, a member of the Senate armed services committee, who said: “This is the first time we have really stepped back and said: ‘We have a new threat rising in the Pacific. We have to take a holistic view’.”

China and the US have clashed regularly over trade, coronavirus, human rights and other territorial disputes, particularly while former US President Donald Trump was in power.

The US, and other western powers, refuse to accept China’s claim to sovereignty in the waters, demonstrating their anger by sending warships through the waters on “freedom of navigation” patrols.

Fears of conflict between the nations persist, with major players in the waters ramping up their military presence.

Experts such as Professor Oriana Skylar Mastro, from Georgetown University, are concerned that the heightened military power in the region will one day lead to accidental conflict.

She told the Council of Foreign Relations this year: “I think there are some factors that show if China cannot achieve its goals, de facto control of the South China waters, it could escalate.

“The US could act more assertively, leading to aggression on the part of China.

“It’s possible that China will come to the conclusion that the diplomatic way of dealing with the situation isn’t working.

“Couple that with new power projection capabilities, military power for the first time… lastly, you could see China taking military action, such as seizing islands of kinetic action against US vessels in the South China Sea waters.”


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