China sets up floating barrier in Panatag Shoal

Mark Ernest Villeza - The Philippine Star
China sets up floating barrier in Panatag Shoal
A Philippine fishing boat is shadowed by the Chinese Coast Guard near Panatag or Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea on Friday. Below, a 300-meter-long floating barrier installed by China prevents Filipino fishermen from entering the resource-rich fishing ground.
Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) yesterday condemned the China Coast Guard (CCG)’s recent installation of a floating barrier in the southeast area of Panatag Shoal.

According to PCG spokesperson on the West Philippine Sea Jay Tarriela, the floating barrier, estimated to be around 300 meters in length, was discovered by PCG and BFAR personnel aboard BRP Datu Bankaw during a routine maritime patrol on Sept. 22 in the vicinity of Bajo de Masinloc, the old name of Panatag also known as Scarborough Shoal.

The installation of the floating barrier was carried out by three CCG rigid hull inflatable boats and a service boat from the Chinese maritime militia upon the arrival of the BFAR vessel in the vicinity of the shoal.

According to reports from Filipino fishermen, the CCG vessels typically deploy floating barriers whenever they observe a significant number of Filipino fishermen operating in the area.

During the routine maritime patrol, the BFAR vessel noted the presence of more than 50 Filipino boats actively engaged in fishing activities within the region.

Recognizing the importance of supporting the fishermen, the BFAR provided them with various grocery items and fuel subsidies to sustain their operations.

However, four CCG vessels (CCG-3065, CCG-3066, CCG-3105 and CCG-3301) initiated 15 radio challenges in an attempt to expel the BFAR vessel and fishermen from the area.

The CCG crew claimed that the presence of the BFAR vessel and Filipino fishermen violated international law and the domestic laws of the People’s Republic of China.

In response, the BFAR vessel acknowledged each radio call and reiterated that they were conducting a routine patrol within the territorial sea of Bajo de Masinloc.

Notably, upon realizing the presence of media personnel aboard the BFAR vessel, the CCG vessels maintained a safe distance and eventually withdrew.

PCG Commandant Admiral Artemio Abu expressed his commitment to supporting the BFAR and other national government agencies in ensuring the safety and security of Filipino fishermen.

The PCG affirmed its dedication to collaborating with all relevant government bodies to address these challenges, uphold maritime rights and safeguard maritime domains.

The temporary barrier “prevents Filipino Fishing Boats from entering the shoal and depriving them of their fishing and livelihood activities,” wire agency AFP quoted the Philippine coast guard and fisheries bureau as saying in a joint statement condemning its installation.

“We are very grateful for this assistance,” said Johnny Arpon, 53, whose 10-metre boat Janica arrived at the shoal in time to stock up on extra diesel.

Some of the Filipino fishermen crowding around the BRP Bankaw in small outriggers to receive provisions climbed aboard to eat snacks and drink fresh water.

They told journalists they had been chased and water cannoned by Chinese vessels in the past and even had their anchors cut.

“They should give it back to us because this is ours,” said Nonoy de los Reyes, 40, referring to Panatag Shoal. “They should leave this place.”

After decades of overfishing by countries surrounding the waters, the men have to spend longer at sea to catch enough fish to cover their costs and, hopefully, make a small profit.

China’s blocking of the shoal had made the situation even tougher and the fishermen said they hated them for it.

“We barely have any catch so we’ll probably need to stay two more weeks,” said Alex del Campo, 41, who had already spent more than a week at sea.

A ‘champion’ of UNCLOS

The Philippines is a “champion” of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), with its primacy affirmed by the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said.

“We advocate the peaceful settlement of disputes, in accordance with international law. This has always been our position with respect to the disputes in the West Philippine Sea, inasmuch as we are prepared to defend our sovereignty, sovereign rights and territorial integrity,” Manalo told the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday.

“As an archipelagic state whose destiny is intimately linked with the oceans, the Philippines is a champion of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” he added.

The arbitral award, he said, definitively settled the status of historic rights and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea, declaring without legal effect claims that exceed entitlements beyond the geographic and substantive limits of UNCLOS.

“For the past seven years, we have celebrated the Award, which is now part of international law,” Manalo said.

In a landmark ruling on July 12, 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration found no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to a “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea, and Beijing had breached the sovereign rights of the Philippines, which brought the case. — Pia Lee-Brago

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