China ships still guard shoal as Pinoys return
Chinese Coast Guard ships are still guarding Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, although they have allowed Filipinos to fish “unmolested” for the first time in years, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said yesterday.
File photo

China ships still guard shoal as Pinoys return

Alexis Romero (The Philippine Star) - October 31, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines – Chinese Coast Guard ships are still guarding Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, although they have allowed Filipinos to fish “unmolested” for the first time in years, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said yesterday.

The officials said this was shown in Philippine aerial surveillance photos of the shoal, which a UN-backed arbitration court had declared as a common fishing ground.

Presidential Communications Office Secretary Martin Andanar and Lorenzana said the return of Filipino fishermen to the shoal, which China seized in 2012 after a standoff with the Philippines over its vessels in the area, was “a most welcome development” because it brought back their key source of livelihood.

China granted access to the tiny, uninhabited shoal 123 nautical miles (228 kilometers) from Zambales after President Duterte reached out to Beijing and met Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders this month.

After his China trip, Duterte announced without elaborating that Filipinos might be able to return to the shoal soon.

A Philippine Navy plane spotted at least four Chinese Coast Guard ships around the shoal during a surveillance flight over the weekend, Lorenzana said, adding that an earlier report by the Philippine Coast Guard that the Chinese had left the area was incorrect.

“Flybys of our planes reported Chinese Coast Guard ships are still there but our fishermen were fishing unmolested,” Lorenzana told The Associated Press.

It’s unclear how long China would keep the shoal open to Filipinos or if there were any conditions attached.

Duterte made clear that the dispute over the shoal was far from over. He said he insisted in his talks with Chinese leaders that the shoal belonged to the Philippines, but that the Chinese also asserted their claim of ownership.

Esperon, for his part, said two Chinese vessels – a research ship and a Navy frigate – were seen in the shoal from Oct. 17 to 27 but Filipino fishermen were allowed to enter the area.

“There are no written agreements or rules but Filipino fishermen who went there lately attest that they were not driven away nor were accosted. And for the record, from October 17 to 27, there had been only two Chinese ships in Bajo de Masinloc,” Esperon said, referring to the alternative name for Panatag Shoal.

“That’s compared to daily average of five People’s Liberation Army Navy and four Chinese Coast Guard ships in the past,” he added.

The research ship was spotted on Oct. 19 while the frigate was seen the following day.

Last Friday, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella announced that Filipino fishermen were no longer being intercepted at the shoal.

Happy to be back

Since 2012, Chinese Coast Guard ships had driven Filipino fishermen away from the area, sometimes with the use of water cannons. Farther south in the Spratly Islands, China went on to construct seven man-made islands in recent years despite protests from other claimants and the United States, which insisted on freedom of navigation in what it considered international waters.

The new development brought joy to the first Filipinos who ventured back to Panatag in flotillas of small fishing boats.

“We’re happy that we were able to sail back there,” said Gil Bauya, who returned Saturday with a huge catch of red snappers and other fish to Cato village in Pangasinan.

“They just let us fish,” Bauya said, referring to three Chinese Coast Guard ships fishermen saw at the shoal from a distance.

“We were waiting for what they would do, but they didn’t do anything like deploying small rubber boats to chase us like they used to do,” Bauya added.

After three days of fishing, Bauya said they ran out of ice to preserve their catch and had to sail back home for the All Souls’ Day holiday.

Amid the festive air in Cato, where villagers helped them unload their bumper catch, Bauya said he and his crewmen planned to travel back to Panatag in the coming week.

Deputy US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Beijing on Saturday that China’s withdrawal from the shoal would be welcomed by Washington.

He said it would be consistent with an international arbitration ruling in July that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The ruling said that both Filipinos and Chinese could fish at the shoal being a traditional common fishing ground but China ignored it.

The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration favored all of the Philippines’ arguments that sought to clarify its maritime entitlements in the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea.

No compromise

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, in a Facebook post, said it might be too early to conclude that Duterte’s approach was working based on reports that Filipino fishermen regained free access in the shoal.

“But then again we have no other option but to comply with international law, as China is fully aware that it is also bound by the rules-based system that has been created for the settlement of international disputes,” Yasay said.

Accepting that under international law the enforcement of “the final and binding arbitral ruling” of the arbitration court could only be achieved by mutual agreement of the parties, Yasay said Duterte “swiftly embarked towards restoring the broken trust” between the Philippines and China by pursuing confidence building measures through sound diplomacy with a view of ensuring, “without compromising” rights over exclusive economic zones.

He said this proved “that bilateral engagements at the proper time within the framework of the arbitral ruling can be facilitated peacefully.”

“Among the key factors that promoted distrust and suspicion is our military reliance and dependence on America displayed through joint patrols and military exercises anchored upon the fear that China will use force and intimidation in derogating and trampling upon our exclusive economic entitlements of both living and non-living resources in the (South China Sea),” Yasay said.

“In turn this has impelled China to dig in and take on a hardline position on its territorial claims,” Yasay said. - With Pia Lee-Brago, AP

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