PH, Chinese ships in delicate dance at disputed shoal

Jasmin Romero, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 18 2016 09:35 AM

MANILA - The Philippine Coast Guard has resumed patrols in the disputed Scarborough Shoal but this does not mean that Chinese ships have gone away.

Ambassador-designate to China Chito Sta. Romana said unmarked ships in the Scarborough Shoal that were spotted by Filipino fishermen are from China. He said the ships are there to assert Chinese occupancy.

"The white ships are the Chinese coastguard and the blue ships are militia. Fishing trollers," Sta. Romana said.

"This is their way of asserting their claim, that they're not giving up."

According to Sta. Romana, this means the territorial disputes have not been solved.

"What has been solved is at least the provisional arrangement on fishing rights. The fishing around the shoal is the one, is what we are witnessing. The effective occupation, which is something inherited by this administration, is still there except they don't harass the Filipino fishermen," he said.

The Philippines earlier said Chinese vessels have stopped harassing and impeding Filipino fishermen at the disputed shoal, almost a week after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's state visit to China.

Local fishermen successfully returned from their fishing trip in Scarborough shoal.

After China seized control of the shoal in 2012 and began restricting access, the administration of Duterte's predecessor Benigno Aquino took the maritime dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

The court on July 12 this year ruled that China, which claims virtually the entire South China Sea, had "violated the Philippines' sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone."

China has rejected the ruling as illegal and invalid.

Dutere, while insisting that Scarborough Shoal belongs to the Philippines, has vowed not to "flaunt" the ruling and to instead pursue bilateral talks with Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping told Duterte in their Oct. 20 talks that China and the Philippines can manage their differences as long as they engage in "friendly dialogue and consultation," and that matters that are sometimes "difficult to talk about can be shelved temporarily," according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

For Sta. Romana, the challenge now is how both sides can maintain their claim without resulting in a stand- off.

"The Philippine Coast Guard - their concern is the welfare of the fishermen in case something goes wrong or they need to be rescued," he said

However, Sta. Romana admitted that the environmental effects of the deep sea fishing conducted by the Chinese militia is also a cause of concern since there are already instances where the Chinese fishermen have been abusing the marine environment such as removing giant clams in the area.

South China Sea reefs 'decimated' as giant clams harvested in bulk

"That is one of the issues that has to be tackled because the Chinese say they are also for the protecting of the marine environment. Now, the question is the details, how to go about it. This is obviously going to be the subject of future talks,"he said.

But is China taking advantage of the dispute to access marine resources? Sta. Romana said it goes both ways.

"We are also, in a sense, we gain time because we gained capacity. The fishermen gained their livelihood. This is the advantage we have right now and at the same time ease the tension," he said.

Unlike the previous administration, the Philippines is now viewed differently as a nation with a different kind of president asserting a different foreign policy, one that is more friendly to China.

Despite all these, Sta. Romana said the country is not letting go of its claim in the West Philippine Sea.

"We don't give up on the sovereignty claim," he said.

Is there something China gains from being friendly with the Philippines? Yes, Sta. Romana claimed.

"China can go back to concentrating on domestic concerns rather than focus their resources on the West Philippine Sea," he said.