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

UNTV News   •   April 10, 2017   •   4118


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)

AFP chief Sobejana visits Pag-asa Island

Robie de Guzman   •   June 9, 2021

 

MANILA, Philippines — Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff Cirilito Sobejana visited Pag-asa Island amid the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China over the West Philippine Sea.

In a statement, the AFP said Sobejana visited the island on Monday along with key officers from the General Headquarters and the Western Command.

The visit was in connection to the conversion of the island into a logistics hub that seeks to sustain the Philippine government forces deployed in the area.

The trip also aims to uplift the morale and welfare of troops securing Pag-asa Island and other communities within the Kalayaan Island Group.

“The AFP will strike a balance between mission accomplishments and looking after the morale and welfare of our men and women,” Sobejana said, addressing the military force manning the Naval Station Emilio Liwanag on Pag-asa Island.

The AFP chief also stressed the importance of the troop’s role in protecting the citizens of Kalayaan Group of Islands and their livelihood as well as guarding the country’s territories in the West Philippine Sea.

The AFP said it recently deployed additional air and naval assets under the operational control of Western Command (WESCOM) in Palawan to support the National Task Force-WPS together with the Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in performing sovereignty patrols in the area.

Prior to visiting Pag-asa Island, the Chief of Staff met with the troops of the 3rd Marine Brigade to extend the AFP’s commendation for keeping the Province of Palawan peaceful, stable and progressive.

He also lauded the unit’s contributions in security operations, civil military operations, stakeholder’s engagement and on COVID-19 mitigation which are vital in the over-all mission accomplishment of WESCOM and the AFP as a whole.

The AFP Chief also visited BRP Emilio Jacinto (PS35), one of the many ships currently deployed at WESCOM while docked at Puerto Princesa City Pier, to commend the their efforts in protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country particularly in the West Philippine Sea.

He likewise lauded the officers and personnel for their role in the successful rescue of 31 fishermen of MB Pauline 2 at Nares Bank, WPS on May 24.

 

31 Filipino fishermen rescued after boat sinks in West Philippine Sea

Robie de Guzman   •   May 25, 2021

MANILA, Philippines – Thirty-one Filipino fishermen were rescued at the vicinity of Nares Bank in the West Philippine Sea after their boat sank on Sunday, authorities said.

In a new release on Tuesday, the Naval Forces West (NFW) said the rescue operation was conducted after it received a radio signal from a fishing boat called FB Española reporting about FB Pauline 2.

The FB Pauline 2 suffered a hull derangement. It also had a hole on its freeboard since and began to take in seawater.

 “Immediately, the boat captain of FB Pauline 2, identified as Mr Placido Asusina, called for distress signal to alert any boats in the vicinity. This distress signal was received by FB Española which in turn relayed the information to NFW before proceeding to FB Pauline 2 to render assistance,” the NFW said.

The naval force said it sent the BRP Emilio Jacinto (PS35) to render assistance to the distressed fishing boat.

The fishermen were received on aboard PS35 on May 24 where they were “medically checked, given food and given accommodation.”

Duterte may meet with ex-PH presidents to discuss West Philippine Sea row – Palace

Robie de Guzman   •   May 20, 2021

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte is looking to meet with his predecessors to discuss China’s continued presence in the West Philippine Sea, Malacañang said Thursday.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque issued the statement when asked for a comment on former military chief and Senator Rodolfo Biazon’s proposal to convene the National Security Council (NSC) over the Duterte administration’s “confusing” stand on Manila’s maritime dispute with Beijing.

Roque insisted that there is nothing confusing with President Duterte’s stand on the sea row as his policy towards China is to temporarily set aside disagreements on some issues and push through with other matters, such as commerce and investments, that will benefit the country.

He also reiterated that the present administration will never give away a territory and will stand firm and protect the national sovereignty and sovereign rights.

But instead of convening the NSC, Roque said the president is mulling over meeting with former presidents and other personalities to tackle the issue.

“Nabanggit po yan sa akin ng presidente. Ang problema dun sa National Security Council, wala naman pong nare-resolve dun sa mga pagkakataon na naka-attend siya so kung kinakailangan, iniisip niya na imbitahin ang mga dating presidente, ilang mga personalidad na magkaroon ng isang pagpupulong to discuss the issue,” he said.

“Pero ang tingin po niya, may mga karanasan po siya sa National Security Council, eh walang resolusyon na nangyayari so parang bakit pa, eh pwede naman po yang through informal consultations,” he added.

The NSC is an advisory body on the proper coordination and integration of plans and policies affecting national security and foreign policy. It is composed of concerned officials of the Cabinet and Congress as members, as well as other government officials and relevant personalities who may be invited by the president.

Roque said there is no date yet for the possible meeting as this is still in the process of consideration. – RRD (with details from Correspondent Rosalie Coz)

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