EXCLUSIVE: At strategic shoal, China asserts power through control, and concessions

UNTV News   •   April 10, 2017   •   4301


A Philippine fisherman watches a China Coast Guard vessel patrolling the disputed Scarborough Shoal, April 5, 2017. Picture taken April 5, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Far out in the South China Sea, where dark blue meets bright turquoise, a miles-long row of fishing boats anchor near Scarborough Shoal, backed by a small armada of coastguard projecting China’s power in Asia’s most disputed waters.

China still calls the shots at the prime fishing spot and has boosted its fleet there, nine months after an international panel ruled its blockade of the lagoon was illegal.

Beijing rejected that ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which invalidated China’s claim of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.

But the presence of Philippine boats dotted between Chinese vessels shows a degree of compliance with the ruling. Overtures from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is negotiating billions of dollars worth of loans, investments and trade deals with China, may have helped.

China stopped repelling Filipino boats in October and allowed them to fish on the edges of the rocky outcrop, 200 km (124 miles) from the Philippines. Now it appears to be easing restrictions further.

Reuters journalists last week entered the Scarborough Shoal itself – the first access by foreign media since China seized it in 2012 – and witnessed dozens of small boats shuttling day and night into the lagoon to capitalise on its rich fish stocks.

“It’s good that we’re now allowed inside, it helps me to support my family’s needs,” said Vicente Palawan, treading water inside the lagoon, a dive mask on his head and fishing spear in hand.

“I don’t want the Chinese here, because there’s so many, it’s affecting the way we fish… but I’m willing to share, I don’t want to be thrown out. At least I can fish.”

The coral outcrop is synonymous with the struggle for regional power, and a strategic tinder box. Along with China and the Philippines, Scarborough is claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.

Despite its concessions, China’s presence here is growing, with a larger contingent of coastguard and fishing boats than was indicated in satellite imagery late last year.

That fuels concerns by Manila that Beijing may have ambitions for the Scarborough Shoal similar to the artificial islands it built and fortified in the Spratly archipelago, inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE

For now, there is a cordial coexistence between the Filipinos and Chinese who anchor side by side less than 100 metres (yards) from the 46-km (28-mile) triangle of rock that barely pokes above the water.

Chinese in straw hats zig-zag from boat to boat, using hand signals to barter with Filipinos for cigarettes, liquor and fish.

Small boats hum as they move in and out of the lagoon, through a buffering line of coral that has for centuries provided fishermen with bountiful catches and haven from storms.

In crowded, rickety boats, Filipinos are outnumbered about ten-to-one and complain of competition from the beefed-up Chinese contingent.

“We used to fish for a few days, now it’s a few weeks, but at least we have something,” said Ramil Rosal, a boat captain and fisherman for 20 years.

“China is fishing more, and Filipinos have to share with them. But they don’t bother us. Some are helpful.”

A half-dozen vessels from the China Marine Surveillance enforce their rules in an area the arbitration court in The Hague declared a traditional fishing site for all countries. It did not rule on sovereignty of the shoal.

Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo said the improved access was “certainly in line with the arbitral ruling”.

STRICT SURVEILLANCE

Fishermen told Reuters China’s coastguard prohibited larger vessels from entering the lagoon, but allowed small two-man boats to fish there freely.

“It applies to Chinese and Filipinos,” Rosal said.

Coastguard in high-powered dinghys were sometimes dispatched from large vessels to get a closer look as unfamiliar boats arrived in the area.

Three coastguard ships were of the kind Manila last year said were capable of dredging. One was permanently inside the shoal, but it was unclear what it was doing.

The coastguard collaborates with Chinese fishermen, shown when a Reuters team pulled up alongside a Chinese boat.

A crewman dashed to fetch a hand-held radio and photographed the journalists. Moments later, a coastguard vessel changed course and moved at speed towards the area, but turned back after a brief chase.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to Reuters questions about Scarborough Shoal. Its most recent comments are vague, stating only that the situation at the shoal was unchanged.

Filipino fishermen said Vietnamese were also fishing at Scarborough, a sign that Hanoi could be testing the new arrangement.

Reuters saw no Vietnamese boats, however, and two Vietnamese fishing organisations said they were unaware any had gone to the shoal. Vietnam’s government did not respond.

While the situation at Scarborough is improved, tensions remain high.

Reports last month that China planned to build an environmental monitoring station at Scarborough sparked consternation in the Philippines. Duterte said he could not stop China, but had been assured of no construction “out of respect for our friendship”.

Just last week, Duterte ordered the upgrade of facilities on the nine reefs and islands the Philippines occupies in the South China Sea, alarming both China and Vietnam.

For now, Filipinos are making the best of the detente. Some stay at the shoal for months.

With blackened skin and torn clothes, men jostle for space on the overloaded bamboo outriggers of boats, transferring baskets of fish to a vessel making a run back to the Philippines.

Captain Renato Etac, 37, chain smokes as he weighs the fish and meticulously logs details of each delivery. Though fish stocks are declining, Scarborough is a “fiesta” for Filipinos, he says.

He even takes a positive view of China’s coastguard.

“If they’re not here, Scarborough becomes open to all, including illegal fishing,” he said. “It somehow acts as deterrent.” —  By Martin Petty | SCARBOROUGH SHOAL, South China Sea

(Additional reporting by Peter Blaza at Scarborough Shoal, Mai Nguyen in Hanoi, and Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

Prexy bets make usual rounds, use social media for day’s activities

Maris Federez   •   November 26, 2021

 

MANILA, Philippines — Three presidential candidates for the 2022 national and local elections made the rounds across the country on Friday, while the rest took to social media to lay down their election promises.

Former Senator Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos, Jr. made another visit to the vote-rich province, Cebu.

Here, members of the Businessmen ng Bayan Movement of the Philippines (BBMP) signified their support to his presidential run.

The group is composed of small-scale businessmen in Cebu.

Labor leader Leody de Guzman, meanwhile, went to Marikina City.

Here, joined the protest action of workers in a company that is based in the city.

Manila Mayor Francisco ‘Isko Moreno’ Domagoso, on the other hand, did not have any out-of-town engagement and just stayed at the City Hall to personally receive the 6,600 pieces of Bariticitinib anti-COVID-19 tablets.

While other presidential bets did not have any public engagements Friday, they took to social media to post their activities for the day.

In his Facebook post, Senator Manny Pacquiao showed the possible housing projects he will implement should he become the president.

Such housing projects will be like that of free housing he did for the people of General Santos City and Saranggani province.

Meanwhile, Senator Panfilo Lacson’s FB post said that providing sufficient funds for free public WIFI will remain in his platform of government should he become president.

He assured the people that he has enough experience in crafting and proper allocation of the national budget.

Vice President Leni Robredo, on the other hand, focused her FB post on the issue in the West Philippine Sea.

Robredo insists that the issue is not just about the fishing sector but about all Filipinos. —/mbmf (from the report of UNTV Correspondent Nel Maribojoc)

PH Defense chief says China trespassing in Ayungin Shoal

Robie de Guzman   •   November 25, 2021

MANILA, Philippines – Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Thursday reiterated that the Philippines has sovereign rights over Ayungin Shoal (also called Second Thomas Shoal) following China’s call for the country to remove its grounded vessel in the area.

“Ayungin lies inside our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) which we have sovereign rights. Our EEZ was awarded to us by the 1982 UNCLOS, which China ratified,“ Lorenzana told reporters.

“China should abide by its international obligations that it is part of,” he added.

The Defense chief issued the statement in response to the remark of China’s Foreign Ministry, through its spokesperson Zhao Lijian, demanding the Philippines to remove the BRP Sierra Madre from the shoal.

BRP Sierra Madre is an old Philippine Navy ship that was ran aground there to assert Manila’s claim over the area. It has been serving as the outpost of a small Philippine military contingent since 1999.

In a press conference in Beijing, Zhao claimed anew that Ayungin Shoal (known in China as Ren’ai Jiao) is part of Nansha Qundao, which is the Chinese name for the Spratly Islands also being claimed in part by the Philippines.

But Lorenzana maintained that Ayungin Shoal is within the Philippines EEZ as it is located about 105 nautical miles west of Palawan.

Aside from UNCLOS, the Defense chief also noted that the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in its 2016 ruling on a case lodged by the Philippines, stated that China’s territorial claim over the West Philippine Sea has neither historic nor legal basis.

“Ergo, we can do whatever we want there and it is they who are actually trespassing,” he said.

“Meron tayong dalawang documento na nagpapatunay na meron tayong sovereign rights sa ating EEZ habang sila ay wala at yung claim nila walang basehan, “ he added.

Lorenzana also said that as far as he knows, there is no commitment made by Philippine authorities to remove BRP Sierra Madre from the Ayungin Shoal.

“As far as I know there is no such commitment. That ship has been there since 1999. If there was commitment it would have been removed long time ago,” he said.

China’s demand for the removal of BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal came after Philippine military boats completed their resupply mission on Thursday.

The boats were deployed there a week after Chinese coast guard vessels blocked and harassed the first Filipino mission that were sent to the area.

The incident prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to call out China’s action at the contested waters during the ASEAN-China special summit on November 22. (with details from Correspondent Lea Ylagan)

Palace welcomes SC ruling junking plea to compel Duterte to defend PH territory

Robie de Guzman   •   November 24, 2021

MANILA, Philippines – Malacañang on Wednesday welcomed the decision of the Supreme Court (SC) to dismiss the petition to compel President Rodrigo Duterte to defend the Philippine territory against China’s claims and incursions in the West Philippine Sea.

“We welcome the decision of the Supreme Court dismissing the petition for mandamus filed against President Rodrigo Roa Duterte,” acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles said in a statement.

Nograles was referring to an SC ruling dated June 29 but only uploaded on its website on November 22.

In a unanimous decision, the SC en banc dismissed the petition for mandamus filed by lawyer Romeo Esmero for “utter lack of merit.”

In his petition, Esmero claimed that it is the president’s ministerial duty to defend the national territory, which includes the West Philippine Sea as established by the UN Arbitral Tribunal.

He also asserted that “there is unlawful neglect or inaction by the president in the performance of his constitutional duty resulting to the detriment of ‘paramount public interest involve (sic) the livelihood of all of our poor Filipino fishermen and their families who are living in the coastal areas of the many islands facing the West Philippine Sea.’”

Esmero also suggested suing China before the International Criminal Court “to demand payment and damages for taking the Kalayaan Islands.”

“Our ruling in De Lima v. Duterte is clear: the president is immune from suit during his incumbency, regardless of the nature of the suit filed against him. Petitioner named President Duterte as the sole respondent in this case. For this reason, this suit should be dismissed outright,” the SC said.

The high court also noted that the petition for the issuance of a writ of mandamus “would still not lie in petitioner’s favor.”

A mandamus petition seeks to compel action and performance of a pre-existing duty, a ministerial function on the part of a board, officer or person, provided that the petitioner has a well-defined and clear right warrant the grant thereof.

“Indeed, the president is the guardian of the Philippine archipelago, including all the islands and waters embraced therein and all other territories over which it has sovereignty or jurisdiction. By constitutional fiat and the intrinsic nature of his office, the president is also the sole organ and the authority in the external affairs of the country,” the ruling read.

The SC said that for all the petitioner’s posturing, he failed to point any law that specifically requires the president to go to the UN or the ICJ to sue China for its incursions into the Philippine exclusive economic zone.

“Neither has he shown a clear and unmistakable constitutional or statutory provision which prescribes how the president is to respond to any threat (actual or imminent) from another State to our sovereignty or exercise of our sovereign rights,” the court said.

The SC said that former President Benigno S. Aquino was under no obligation to file a case against China through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2013.

“Taking China to binding arbitration was risky, as it could potentially damage relations with a major trading partner. On July 12, 2016, the arbitral tribunal issued an award overwhelmingly in favor of claims by the Philippines and ultimately bringing some clarity to the overlapping claims in the area,” the court noted.

The SC said that if President Duterte now sees fit to take a different approach with China despite said ruling, “this does not by itself mean that he has, as petitioner suggests, unlawfully abdicated his duty to protect and defend our national territory, correctible with the issuance by this Court of the extraordinary writ of mandamus.”

“Being the Head of State, he is free to use his own discretion in this matter, accountable only to his country in his political character and to his own conscience,” the SC added.

The 9-page ruling was penned by Associate Justice Rodil Zalameda. All 13 other justices concurred with the decision.

With this ruling, Malacañang said that the “executive power, indeed, rests on the President, including the peaceful and stable conduct of foreign affairs. Matters within the President’s discretion cannot be compelled by mandamus.”

The Palace also maintained that the president is the chief architect of foreign policy and this is affirmed by the latest decision of the High Court.

“Having said this, the president has firmly kept his position to continue the peaceful resolution of disputes,” Malacañang said.

 

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