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

UNTV News   •   April 10, 2017   •   3670


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)

PHL, Chinese Coast Guard hold joint maritime drills in Manila

Robie de Guzman   •   January 15, 2020

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Coast Guard and Chinese Coast Guard on Wednesday conducted joint maritime drills on search and rescue and combating fire at sea in the waters off the Philippine capital.

In a statement, the PCG said participating Filipino and Chinese personnel were given a scenario involving a vessel that caught fire while transiting Manila waters.

In response, the PCG deployed its 44-meter multi-role response vessel 4401, BRP Tubbataha, while the Chinese team dispatched vessel 5204. Both ships were equipped with water cannons used in firefighting assistance.

Five passengers and eight crew aboard the distressed ship were also rescued using rigid hull inflatable boats with rescue swimmers to aid the victims.

The PCG said the drill allows coast guard personnel to exercise interoperability and strengthen their capabilities in responding to such crises.

The joint maritime drills on search and rescue, and combating fire at sea are part of the week-long activities of Chinese Coast Guard’s port call in Manila.

The visit aims to strengthen understanding, mutual trust, and cooperation between the Philippines and China Coast Guard in a bid to promote maritime security and maritime law enforcement amid the territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea.

PH, China Coast Guard to hold joint maritime exercises next week

Robie de Guzman   •   January 10, 2020

FILE PHOTO: A Chinese Coast Guard vessel is pictured on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea March 29, 2014. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

MANILA, Philippines – The Chinese Coast Guard will dock in Manila on Monday, January 13 for a five-day goodwill visit, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said Friday.

PCG spokesperson Captain Armand Balilo said the China Coast Guard, headed by Director General Major General Wang Zhongcai, will visit the country for the conduct of maritime exercises with the PCG.

Participating coast guard members from the two countries will also hold search and rescue, and firefighting exercises. The drill will be held from January 13 to 17.

Balilo said that during the port visit, the Chinese and the Philippine coast guards will come up with a resolution that would ensure the security and safety of Filipino fishermen and public vessels traversing the country’s waters.

The PCG said it will welcome the China Coast Guard not with red carpet but with diplomatic reciprocity, the same way it welcomed the PCG during a past visit.

The Philippines has been in dispute with China over territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea.

On several cases, Chinese ships were reported to have been circling shoals under the Philippine territory, including the vicinity of Pagasa Island in the West Philippine Sea. There were also cases of Filipino vessels reportedly harassed by the Chinese Coast Guard vessels.

The PCG expressed hope that the drill would be an opportunity for both sides to discuss the issue, and help improve the line of communication between the two nations when it comes to maritime patrol.

“Para magkaintindihan din kasi ang iniisip nga namin kung merong ma-enhance iyong pagkakaibigan baka sakaling magkaintindihan, even doon sa patrol at tsaka sa mga challenges, baka magkaroon ng tamang protocol kung paano ang dapat na engagement,” Balilo said.

Indonesian president visits island in waters disputed by Beijing

UNTV News   •   January 8, 2020

Jakarta – The president of Indonesia on Wednesday visited an island in disputed waters of the South China Sea amid a weeks-long standoff between Indonesian and Chinese vessels, an outgrowth of the ongoing territorial spat in which Jakarta and Beijing both claim sovereignty over the area.

Joko Widodo made the symbolic trip to Natuna Besar – the main island of the Middle Natuna Archipelago in the Riau Islands province – in a bid to assert Indonesia’s claims of ownership of the waters. There, he met with local fishermen and talked to reporters.

“I am here too to ensure law enforcement for our sovereign rights – our country’s sovereign rights – over the richness of our marine natural resources in the exclusive economic zone,” Widodo said. “Why are Bakamla (the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency) and the Navy here? To ensure the rule of law.”

The leader, who was re-elected to a second term in April of last year, added that Indonesia had a district, a regent and a governor in the area. “There are no more debates. De facto, de jure, Natuna is Indonesia.”

Meanwhile, Geng Shuang, the main spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said Wednesday that Beijing had repeatedly reiterated its sovereignty and jurisdiction over relevant waters in the South China Sea.

“I have to stress that China and Indonesia have no territorial sovereignty disputes. Our claims for maritime interests in certain waters in South China Sea overlap,” Geng said. “We are ready to properly handle the differences with Indonesia and uphold the peace and stability in the region as well as our two countries’ relations. Actually, we have been in communication through diplomatic channels.”

The face-off between the two Asian nations erupted in the second half of December when a Chinese coast guard ship that was escorting several fishing vessels entered waters that Jakarta says belong to its EEZ (though Beijing claims the waters as its own, along with most of the South China Sea).

In response to the incursion, Indonesia summoned the Chinese ambassador, issued a letter of protest and sent warships and fighter jets to strengthen its military presence in the area, which it re-named the North Natuna Sea in 2017. Beijing, in turn, deployed another coast guard boat.

On Tuesday, Indonesia sent four more warships as reinforcement. The Southeast Asian country currently has a naval presence of 10 military vessels around Natuna.

The dispute over the Natuna Islands dates back to 2016, when Indonesia decided to build military bases in the region following a series of conflicts with Chinese fishing boats.

Besides Indonesia, China is locked in sovereignty disputes over the South China Sea with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Beijing stakes claim on nearly the entire South China Sea region, an area through which $5 billion worth of commercial traffic passes annually, and which boasts large fishing zones and is reportedly rich in oil and gas reserves. EFE-EPA

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