Coast guard reports more Filipino fishermen in disputed Chinese-controlled shoal

Jojo Riñoza and Jeoffrey Maitem
Coast guard reports more Filipino fishermen in disputed Chinese-controlled shoal Philippine coast guard personnel assist Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea, in this undated photo released March 25, 2022.
[Handout/Philippine Coast Guard]

The Philippine Coast Guard said Friday it had seen more Filipino fishermen operating off a rich fishing ground in Manila’s exclusive economic zone, describing this as a “significant milestone” because China has effectively controlled South China Sea waters in that area for the past decade.

A patrol ship had monitored around 45 Filipino fishing boats in the Scarborough Shoal between Feb. 25 and March 5 – the highest number observed since 2012, when China took control of the area – according to Adm. Artemio Abu, the coast guard commandant.

In a statement, the coast guard confirmed “the increasing presence of Filipino fishermen” in the area and said that it had also kept watch and provided the Filipino fishermen with relief supplies.

“Seeing more Filipino fishing boats in Bajo de Masinloc is a proof of our intensified efforts to safeguard Filipino fishermen who consider fishing as their primary source of livelihood,” Abu said using the Filipino name for Scarborough Shoal, a triangular shaped rocky outcrop.

“Through our regular interaction, we assure them that the PCG [Philippine Coast Guard] will remain active and present in the area. We always assure them that we are here to protect their welfare and promote their safety),” Abu added.

Meanwhile, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) stressed the need to encourage Filipino fishermen to catch fish in the traditional fishing grounds. The Philippine name for the South China Sea is the West Philippine Sea.

In 2012, the Philippine Coast Guard engaged Chinese ships in a stand-off over the Scarborough Shoal. China reneged on a deal to leave the region, and its ships stayed put.

A year later, Manila filed a case against Beijing over the issue. In a landmark verdict in 2016, the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and threw out China’s expansive territorial claims in the sea region.

However, Beijing has ignored the ruling and has since maintained a presence in the shoal.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power in 2016 just weeks before the ruling, has pursued appeasement with China instead of working to enforce the court’s decision, agreeing to put the issue on the back burner until only recently. He will be leaving office after the Philippine general election in May.

Still, South China Sea observers say that China has been continuing with its expansionism in the maritime region.

In June 2019, a Chinese vessel rammed a Filipino fishing boat in Reed Bank, another region in the South China Sea that lies within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Chinese crew left 22 Philippine fishermen stranded at sea until a passing Vietnamese boat rescued them.

Last month, a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) reconnaissance ship was said to have been chased out of Philippine waters near the Sulu Sea. Beijing insisted it was an “innocent passage” guaranteed under an international convention on the law of the seas.

Opposition lawmakers have sought a congressional inquiry into the recent incursion by the PLAN vessel.

“The repeated and unwanted incursions of Chinese vessels into Philippine territory not only raises serious concerns, but flagrant violations of the country’s national sovereignty and security,” said a joint statement by leftist lawmakers Carlos Isagani Zarate, Eufemia Cullamat, and Ferdinand Gaite.

“These acts brazenly disregard Philippine authority over its territory, thus these should be condemned and investigated,” the lawmakers said.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its own, but five other Asian governments – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – have territorial claims in the disputed waterway.

While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the sea overlapping Indonesia’s EEZ.

Separately on Friday, Rear Adm. Jeffrey Anderson, commander of aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, referred to the Philippines and other Asian allies when he said that the U.S. Navy’s presence in the South China Sea demonstrates “our commitment to the region as we continue to protect our collective interests, enhance our security and safeguard our shared values.”

Anderson commented days before treaty allies Washington and Manila are set to hold their largest joint military training exercise since 2016, involving nearly 9,000 troops that will focus on training in maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire, and counterterrorism exercises. 

The 37th Balikatan, which means shoulder-to-shoulder in Tagalog, begins on March 28 and ends on April 8 at training sites in Luzon, the Philippines’ main island. 


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