MANILA - Fishing activities by Filipino and Chinese citizens in the disputed South China Sea can go on as usual especially in the rich fishing ground of Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua said Monday.
Zhao noted even the Philippine military has already disputed reports that Chinese authorities were harassing Filipino fishermen at the Panatag Shoal, located only 124 nautical miles off Zambales and is within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
He stressed that “in general, fishing can go as usual” in the South China Sea, but “there are certain kinds of limits that I think both sides are observing.”
“For example, [if] Chinese fishing vessels [are] getting too close to the Chung-yeh islands, there might be some concern from your side. If [Filipino] fishermen [are] getting too close to the islands we have people, there might be concerns,” Zhao told reporters.
Asked about the reported harassment of Filipino fishermen in Panatag Shoal, Zhao made reference to Chung-yeh Island, the Chinese name for the Pag-asa Island, a Philippine-held island located off Palawan which is another potential site of conflict between the 2 countries.
The Philippine military recently reported the presence of a large number of Chinese vessels in surrounding Pag-asa Island.
Senatorial candidate Neri Colmenares earlier released a documentary showing Filipino fishermen narrating how they were driven away from the Scarborough Shoal by Chinese authorities.
But the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Northern Luzon Command disputed the fishermen’s claims.
Scarborough, called by Filipinos as Panatag Shoal and by the Chinese as Huangyan Island, was the site of a 2012 standoff between the Philippines and China. The standoff erupted when Manila sent its biggest warship to chase off Chinese poachers.
China gained effective control of the shoal after Manila withdrew its vessel. It then started blocking Filipino fishermen from the shoal.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s overtures to Beijing lowered the tension in the area, with Chinese President Xi Jinping himself promising to allow Filipino fishermen back into the rocky outcrop.
But fishermen noted that China continued to have control over the shoal despite the decision of a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal in 2016 which declared it as a traditional fishing ground for both China and the Philippines and their neighbors.
Since the tension erupted between the Philippines and China in 2012, Beijing has ramped up its construction activities in the Spratlys archipelago. It has built artificial islands there which observers say was aimed at strengthening Beijing's grip in the vital sea lane.
In a statement, the Philippines’ Department of National Defense encouraged fishermen “to continue their fishing activities in our waters and Exclusive Economic Zone.”
“Just as the Philippines honors our international obligations and protocols, we also expect other countries and their vessels to do the same especially when sailing and fishing in international waters,” the DND said.
“This is necessary in order to avoid any misunderstanding and to reduce tensions between countries in the region.”
Meanwhile, Zhao said communication lines between the Philippines and China remain open to resolve the issue involving the reported presence of a large number of Chinese vessels around Pag-asa Island.
“For the exact number [of vessels], that's up [for] verification. Our line of communication has always been open…We would like to communicate our respective concerns for each other through the proper channel,” Zhao said.
“If they are true, I'm sure both sides can handle the issue through diplomatic channels in a friendly manner.”
Over 600 Chinese vessels have been spotted around Pag-asa Island (Thitu Island) in the South China Sea since January this year, the military said.
On Feb. 10, the military recorded the highest number of Chinese vessels circling Pag-asa Island at 87. It was also on this day that the military brought construction equipment to the island for the repair of a runway ramp that is expected to be finished by July this year.
Zhao said as far he knows, those onboard the vessels are not armed and must be ordinary Chinese fishermen.
“Well we do not know whether there are militia men in that area or not, but clearly it is an area that is disputed,” Zhao said.
“We have been handling this issue through friendly and diplomatic channels so you don’t have to worry about whether there would be any kind of outbreak of conflict or not.”
Pag-asa Island, the second largest naturally occurring island in the Spratlys archipelago, is the sole village of Kalayaan town in Palawan. Claimed by China but is under Philippine control, it is home to some 340 people.
Just 15 miles across Pag-asa Island is China’s reclaimed island over Subi Reef, one of the seven Philippine-claimed features in the Spratlys which China seized and turned into artificial islands that boast of modern military facilities.
China has refused to accept a 2016 decision of a UN-backed arbitral tribunal which invalidated its expansive claim to the South China Sea.
Duterte has chosen to downplay Manila's maritime dispute with Beijing as it pursued improved economic ties with the regional power and world's second largest economy. He also warned of grave consequences in case war erupts between the two Asian neighbors.