MANILA – Despite reports that Filipino fishermen can now freely fish at the Scarborough Shoal in the disputed South China Sea, a think thank said satellite imagery shows that China is still blocking access to the resource-rich lagoon.
An October 29 satellite imagery by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies shows a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel anchored just inside the mouth of the lagoon, “where it has been for most of the period since China seized the shoal in 2012, apparently blocking access.”
The think tank said at least 17 Philippine fishing vessels were seen along the exterior of the lagoon.
“This corroborates reports that Filipino fishermen fished ‘just outside Scarborough’s lagoon’ over the last week. There were also two Chinese civilian ships in the vicinity. According to the Philippine Navy, three other CCG vessels continue to patrol near Scarborough,” AMTI said.
The satellite image was taken a day after the Philippine government said Filipino fishermen were already able to catch fish unmolested at the shoal and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon’s pronouncement that the Philippines and China have reached a "friendly" understanding allowing Filipinos to fish around a disputed shoal.
China’s foreign ministry, for its part, said China “has always been exercising normal jurisdiction over Huangyan Dao [Scarborough Shoal]. The situation there is and will remain unchanged.”
But the think tank suggested that China merely relaxed “the stricter blockade of the reef that they put in place following the July 12 arbitral ruling.”
The July arbitral ruling by The Hague-based tribunal declared Scarborough as a traditional fishing ground and China’s blockade of it was illegal.
Rejecting the ruling, China intensified its patrols in Scarborough, driving away fishermen who dared to approach the shoal.
For AMTI, the current situation can only be described as “a return to the status quo that has existed for much of the last four years, not the pre-2012 status quo in which Philippine fishermen regularly entered Scarborough Shoal.”
“At many points over the last four years, Filipino fishermen have been able to approach the outside of the shoal, but always at the forbearance of the CCG (Chinese Coast Guard),” AMTI said.
AMTI pointed to satellite images taken in September which depicted Filipino fishermen’s complaint “that it was becoming more, not less, difficult for them to approach Scarborough,” in the lead-up to Duterte’s China visit in late October.
The think tank said the number of Chinese coast guard and civilian ships around the shoal had increased since at least early September, “hitting levels not seen in satellite imagery since early 2014.”
The September satellite imagery, AMTI said, “is noteworthy because not a single Filipino fishing vessel was visible at the shoal on any of the days involved, lending credence to reports that CCG ships have driven off any ships approaching the shoal.”
“Since China seized Scarborough in mid-2012, Filipino fishermen have been unable to access the rich waters within its lagoon,” it added.
Following his trip to China on October 18 to 21, Duterte said, “We’ll just wait for a few more days. We may be able to return to Scarborough Shoal.”