China flexes muscle in disputed waters

The Philippine Star

Indonesia also mulling arbitration

MANILA, Philippines - Beijing is flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea, driving away Filipino fishermen from Panatag Shoal and preventing the Indonesian coast guard from detaining a Chinese vessel caught poaching in Indonesia’s waters.

The development prompted Jakarta to summon the Chinese ambassador and sparked new concerns over China’s growing assertiveness in staking its claims in disputed waters.

Indonesian fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti said his country has for years been pursuing and promoting peace in the South China Sea.

“With the (March 19) incident we feel interrupted and sabotaged in our efforts,” Pudjiastuti said. “We may take it to the international tribunal of the law of the sea.”

Earlier, at least 10 Filipino fishermen reported being harassed and driven away from Panatag or Scarborough Shoal by a Chinese coast guard vessel. The shoal, off Zambales province and well within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone, has effectively been under Chinese control since 2012.

Indonesia protested yesterday what it described as an infringement of its waters by a Chinese coast guard vessel at the weekend, the foreign minister in Jakarta said.

Foreign minister Retno Marsudi met Chinese embassy representatives in Jakarta after the incident involving a Chinese coast guard vessel, a Chinese fishing vessel and an Indonesian patrol ship in the northern Natuna Sea.

China says that it does not dispute Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Natuna Islands.

“At the meeting we conveyed our strong protest (over)... the breach by the Chinese coast guard of Indonesia’s sovereign rights,” Marsudi told reporters in a press conference.

China claims vast swaths of the South China Sea, where several Southeast Asian countries also have overlapping claims. Indonesia, however, remains a non-claimant. 

The latest development comes amid heightened tensions in the South China Sea over China’s land reclamation and over its claims over vast areas of an important shipping corridor. 

Indonesia was attempting to detain the Chinese vessel for illegal fishing when a Chinese coast guard vessel intervened, Pudjiastuti said.

“What we will ask the ambassador is that if they say their nine-dash line does not claim Natuna, then why is there still illegal fishing happening there?” Pudjiastuti said. “Their government should not stand behind illegal and unregulated fishing.”

China’s Foreign Ministry said a Chinese coast guard vessel did not enter Indonesian waters after Indonesia protested against what it called an infringement of its waters by a Chinese vessel near a disputed area of the South China Sea over the weekend.

Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying made the comments at a daily news briefing.

In a statement sent to Reuters, China’s foreign ministry said the trawler was carrying out “normal activities” in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.”

“On March 19, after the relevant trawler was attacked and harassed by an armed Indonesian ship, a Chinese Coast Guard ship went to assist,” it said.

“The Chinese side immediately demanded the Indonesian side at once release the detained Chinese fishermen and ensure their personal safety,” the ministry added.

China hopes Indonesia can “appropriately handle” the issue, it said. 

Indonesia is not a claimant in the disputed South China Sea, but has raised concerns over China’s inclusion of the resource-rich Natuna Islands in its so-called “nine-dash line.”

In Lingayen, Pangasinan, 10 fishermen from Infanta town in Quezon reported being harassed by Chinese coast guard recently in the vicinity of the disputed Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc.

Village chairman Charlito Maniago of Barangay Cato, Infanta told The STAR in a short phone interview that the fishermen had just arrived in their homes yesterday.

Maniago said the fishermen told him how they tried to fight off – even with stones – the Chinese, who were driving them away from the shoal.

He said the fishermen’s boat was damaged as the Chinese vessel attempted to ram it.

Maniago said the fishermen couldn’t tell when the incident exactly happened.

On Sept. 22 last year, 16 fishermen also from Barangay Cato e-mailed an urgent appeal to the United Nations that the Chinese coast Guard be cited for gross human rights violation for depriving them of their livelihood.

“We request that you urgently intervene, remind and direct China and its state agents to respect the human rights – including the right to livelihood, the right to adequate food and the right to life – of the Filipino fisherfolk over their traditional fishing grounds and safe refuge in the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc) in accordance with China’s international obligation under (a) the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, (b) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and (c) customary international law,” the appeal read.

China took over Panatag Shoal after tricking the Filipinos into leaving the area as part of a truce after a standoff.

The standoff began when a Chinese maritime surveillance ship prevented a Filipino naval vessel from detaining Chinese fishermen caught poaching in the area.

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Jose Rene Almendras said they were awaiting the official report about intensified Chinese activities at Panatag Shoal.

Almendras made the announcement after Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua called on him yesterday at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

“We’re waiting for the official report, validation of that. When and if the Armed Forces does validate it, we will be launching our usual course of action which is to express our opinions according to diplomatic channels,” he added.

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