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China fishing boats cordon off Spratlys

MANILA, Philippines - A Chinese fishing fleet composed of 30 vessels sailed on Monday from Hainan province to the disputed Spratly islands in the West Philippine Sea for a “40-day operation,” a report in the state-run China Daily said yesterday.

“The 40-day operation is the second of its kind organized by local fishery associations after Sansha city was established in June last year,” the report read. Each vessel in the fleet weighs more than 100 metric tons. The journey is expected to take four days.

The first fishing expedition, also comprising 30 boats, was held in July last year. China Daily quoted Li Nianyou, deputy director of the Hainan provincial department of ocean and fisheries, as saying that his office would “make every effort to guarantee the fleet’s safety.”

At Malacañang, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) were verifying the report.

Sought for comment, Department of National Defense spokesman Peter Galvez said China should limit its operations to international waters.

“Everybody is free to fish in international waters,” Galvez told The STAR in a phone interview.  

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“We remind all parties against conduct of activities that may affect the current stability and peace in the area,” the defense official said.

Last year, China announced that it had elevated to prefecture from county status Xisha (Paracels), Zhongsha (Macclesfield bank), and Nansha (Spratlys) islands under the management of the newly formed Sansha City.

The Philippines said the establishment of Sansha violates the country’s sovereignty over the Kalayaan Group in the Spratlys and Panatag Shoal, also called Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc.

Kalayaan is a fifth class municipality in Palawan and is located on Pag-Asa Island in the Spratlys.

Panatag Shoal, meanwhile, is located 124 nautical miles from Zambales.

The report said a 4,000-ton supply ship and a 1,500-ton transport ship were supplying the fishing vessels with fuel, food, water and other necessities.

“Experts estimate there are 3.5 million tons of fish in Nansha waters, with less than three percent explored,” the report read.

Valte, meanwhile, said the government would act accordingly if reports on the deployment of Chinese fishing vessels turn out to be true.

“We are checking that out. I communicated with the DFA precisely about that particular report and we will wait for confirmation from the AFP or the PCG about that reported movement,” she said.

“As of now we want to verify first, as we always do when we receive reports like this from different media entities. And we’ll see what happens from there because you’ve seen this happen in several instances,” she added.

“Of course, if it’s international waters we have no problem… It is only when there is presence in the disputed areas where we do express concern. As of now, we are verifying,” Valte said.

‘Preposterous’

Meanwhile, a US professor and expert in maritime laws and security issues called China’s nine-dash line concept “preposterous” and not in Beijing’s interest.

“The nine-dash line has absolutely zero basis in international law and ocean’s law” and is “defenseless,” said John Norton Moore, Walter L. Brown law professor and director of the Center for National Security Law and of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Moore raised the observation last May 6 at a forum on the South China Sea dispute at the Stimson Center in Washington.

He said China’s position reflects that of the former Soviet Union which was “very coastally oriented” and did not promote navigational freedom.

“The long-term interest of China lies in the compromise that is set in the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) that protects freedom of navigation around the world,” he said.

“UNCLOS is in the interest of China, I have no doubt whatsoever,” Moore said. 

UNCLOS, he said, is a mechanism for international trade and it is one of the most important multilateral treaties in the world.

He also emphasized that the US should also subscribe to UNCLOS.

Without the UNCLOS, Moore said the US is crippled in its ability to deal with maritime issues.

The Pentagon, for its part, said in its annual report to the US Congress that Chinese vessels maintain an almost continuous presence at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea since the standoff with the Philippines over ownership of the disputed territory last year.

In its report to the US Congress entitled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013,” the Pentagon said Chinese officials consider protecting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity a “core interest.”

“All officials repeatedly state China’s opposition to and willingness to respond to actions it perceives as challenging this core interest,” the report said.

Beijing claims its maritime rights extend to virtually the entire South China Sea and West Philippine Sea and often illustrates this claim using a “nine-dash line” that encompasses much of the sea.

The report said Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels and Philippine coast guard vessels engaged in a protracted standoff at Panatag after the Philippine Navy attempted to conduct a fishing enforcement action against Chinese poachers.

Although overt tensions between China and the Philippines subsided by year’s end, both sides continue to claim jurisdiction over the reef.  Chinese law enforcement vessels have maintained an almost round-the-clock presence ever since. - With Delon Porcalla, Pia Lee-Brago, Lito Katigbak, STAR Washington bureau

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