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China violates fishing ban, tension up in Panatag

CHINA has violated its own fishing ban on the disputed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal by allowing 16 of its fishing vessels and 76 utility boats to illegally collect marine species from the area, it was learned on Wednesday.

Citing reports from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), the Department of Foreign Affairs said that “there is an increasing number and pattern of Chinese government vessels and fishing vessels in the area.”

“They are fishing [for] and collecting corals . . . This is going against their statements that they want to de-escalate [tensions at the shoal],” Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez told a press briefing.

He was quick to clarify, however, that PCG and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessels in the area were not harassed.

To date, there are five Chinese government vessels (CMS-71, CMS-84, FLEC-301, FLEC-303 and FLEC-310), 16 Chinese fishing boats and 76 utility boats that are used to collect fish and other marine life from the area.

CMS refers to Chinese Maritime Surveillance, while FLEC stands for Fisheries Law Enforcement Command.

Of the 16 fishing boats, 10 are inside the lagoon while six are outside.

There are no Filipino fishing vessels in the shoal at press time.

“It is regrettable that these actions occurred at a time when China has been [calling] for a de-escalation of tensions and while the two sides have been discussing how to defuse the situation in the area,” Hernandez said.

Earlier, Beijing and Manila separately imposed fishing bans on the shoal, which the Philippines also calls Bajo de Masinloc and which the Chinese call Huangyan Island, to replenish marine resources there.

On Monday, the Foreign Affairs spokesman said that the Philippines already filed a protest through a note verbale sent to China through its embassy in Manila.

The latest protest is the seventh since the standoff at the shoal started on April 10, when Chinese maritime surveillance vessels prevented the PCG from seizing eight Chinese fishing boats with “illegally” collected fish and corals on board.

“The Philippines protests these actions of China as clear violations of Philippine sovereignty and jurisdiction over the shoal and sovereign rights over the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that covers the waters around Bajo de Masinloc,” Hernandez said.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), a country has sovereign rights up to 200 nautical miles of its surrounding waters.

The shoal sits just 124 nautical miles off Masinloc town in Zambales province.

Hernandez said that Beijing’s recent actions at the shoal violate the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)-China Declaration of Conduct (DOC) on the South China Sea.

He cited the provision calling on parties “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”

The Foreign Affairs spokesman said that Beijing also violated Article 2.4 of the UN Charter, which provides that “all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.”

Besides expressing its “grave concern” over China’s continuing actions in the area, Manila also lamented that the increasing number of Chinese vessels “imperils the marine biodiversity in the shoal and threatens the marine ecosystem in the whole West Philippine Sea.”

Hernandez reiterated Manila’s demand for Beijing to immediately pull out its vessels from the country’s EEZ and Continental Shelf, and for it “to refrain from taking further actions that exacerbate the situation in the West Philippine Sea.”

He, however, clarified that Philippine and Chinese officials’ discussions to ease tensions in the shoal are still ongoing.

But even as the Philippines demanded the withdrawal of Chinese vessels from the disputed area, Hernandez said that the government is yet to set a deadline for that.

The PCG is only instructed to monitor developments in the area and to document the actions being taken by the Chinese vessels there, he added.

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