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

UNTV News   •   April 10, 2017   •   4063


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)

DND’s Lorenzana backs Duterte remark on arbitral ruling on WPS vs China

Robie de Guzman   •   May 6, 2021

MANILA, Philippines – Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Thursday expressed agreement with President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent remark on the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) favoring the Philippines in its case against China’s activities in the West Philippine Sea.

“What President Duterte said last night regarding the PCA ruling is correct,” Lorenzana said in a statement, referring to Duterte’s statement that nothing happened when he tried to assert the arbitral ruling on the Philippines’ rights in the resource-rich West Philippine Sea.

In a pre-taped public address on Wednesday night, Duterte said he tried to pursue the arbitral ruling when he came to power in 2016 but “nothing happened,” adding that the ruling was “just a piece of paper” that can be tossed into a waste basket.

Lorenzana said he agrees with the President when he said that there is no international law enforcement body that can enforce the ruling.

He, however, stressed that even without the PCA ruling, the Philippine government will still continue to defend “what is rightfully ours.”

“As I said in my previous statement, the President’s orders have been firm and straightforward: we defend what is rightfully ours without going to war and maintain the peace in the seas,” he said.

Lorenzana also said that Philippine Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources will continue conducting maritime exercises in the West Philippine Sea and the Kalayaan Island Group.

The National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea earlier said that it has intensified maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea after Chinese vessels were spotted lingering in areas within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.

The Department of Foreign Affairs have repeatedly filed diplomatic protests over Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea.

Carpio accepts Duterte’s challenge to debate on West Philippine Sea issue

Robie de Guzman   •   May 6, 2021

MANILA, Philippines – Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio on Thursday accepted President Rodrigo Duterte’s challenge to go on a debate over the West Philippine Sea issue.

“I gladly accept the challenge anytime at the President’s convenience,” Carpio said in a statement.

In a pre-taped briefing on Wednesday night, Duterte said he only has two or three questions for Carpio when they face in a debate on the West Philippine Sea.

Duterte said he would ask Carpio on who ordered the Philippine Navy to retreat from area during the 2012 standoff, what did the administration of then President Benigno Aquino do about it and did they enforce the ruling when they filed and won the case.

Duterte has been reiterating that former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario was involved in the decision to withdraw the Philippine ships from the West Philippine Sea.

He also said that Del Rosario and Carpio should be investigated for their role in China’s occupation of some areas in the contested waters, adding that he would “resign immediately” if he was proven to be lying about this matter.

Carpio, however, denied involvement in the issue.

“President Duterte should now resign immediately to keep his word of honor. I state under oath that I was never involved in the decision to withdraw Philippine Navy ships from the West Philippine Sea during the 2012 Scarborough standoff,” he said.

“I was serving in the Supreme Court at that time and all I new about the withdrawal of Philippine Navy ships was what I read in the newspapers,” he added.

“I call as my witnesses former President Benigno Aquino III and the Defense Secretary, Foreign Affairs Secretary and the chiefs of the Philippine Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard at that time,” he further stated.

Duterte on retaking West Philippine Sea: ‘I never promised the people I would’

Marje Pelayo   •   May 4, 2021

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte recalled his conversation with President Xi Jinping regarding the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

According to Duterte he asked the communist leader to just let Filipinos fish in the West Philippine Sea.

“I told China, it’s yours according to you, I’ve heard several times. But you also have heard of the fact that people are hungry. Ang Pilipino ay gutom (Filipinos are hungry) and you are not oblivious to that fact. So kindly just allow our fishermen to fish in peace,” he said.

The President said he is ready to talk with China should conflict arise over the disputed territory.

“There’s no reason for trouble. If there is one brewing, you call our attention and we can talk immediately to solve the problem,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Chief Executive said he never made a campaign promise to retake the WPS.

“I never, never in my campaign as president, promised the people that I would retake the West Philippine Sea. I did not promise that I would pressure China,” he said. “I never mentioned about China and the Philippines in my campaign because that was a very serious matter.”

But President Duterte stressed that he is ready to fight for the country’s sovereignty and he will not order a retreat of Philippine vessels patrolling in the area.

Reacting to Duterte’s statement, retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio reminded the former of  his statement during the presidential campaign about riding on a jetski to Scarborough Shoal and hoisting the Philippine flag there.

He also said Duterte had issued a statement fully supporting the arbitration case against China.

Thus, Carpio said, President Duterte cannot say that he never mentioned the West Philippine Sea issue or he would be admitting that he was fooling millions of Filipinos which, the former justice said, is tantamount to “grand estafa”.

“President Duterte cannot now say that he never discussed or mentioned the West Philippine Sea issue when he was campaigning for President. Otherwise, he would be admitting that he was fooling the Filipino people big time. There is a term for that–grand estafa or grand larceny. Making a false promise to get 16 million votes,” Carpio said.

For Senator Panfilo Lacson, it is necessary to revisit the Philippines’ diplomatic relations with China.

“Maybe a review of the country’s diplomatic relations is timely and called for. All the diplomatic protests that the Secretary of Foreign Affairs filed have been ignored as if nothing was filed at all. The continued incursions and bullying finally got his goat,” he said. MNP (with reports from Nel Maribojoc)

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