Chinese vessels ram PH fishers’ boat at Panatag
SUBIC, Zambales—Chinese Coast Guard rubber boats rammed and damaged a boat carrying 11 Filipino fishermen at Panatag Shoal (international name: Scarborough Shoal) in early March, in a move likely to heighten tensions between the Philippines and China in the hotly disputed South China Sea.
The fishermen, who arrived here early Saturday after a 16-day fishing trip to Panatag Shoal, said they were driven away by the Chinese Coast Guard twice, on March 5 and 6.
China seized the shoal from the Philippines after a two-month standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels in 2012.
It has since cordoned off the shoal, driving away Filipino fishermen from their traditional fishing ground.
Without military muscle to retake the shoal, the Philippines filed a case in the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in January 2013, asking the tribunal to invalidate China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea.
The Philippine move angered China, which started to build artificial islands in the South China Sea to bolster its claim to the strategic waterway.
With a ruling expected from the arbitral tribunal in coming weeks, China has started activities at Panatag that the United States, which has detected Chinese movements around the shoal, says could be a precursor to more land reclamation in the South China Sea.
Adm. John Richardson, head of US naval operations, reported the Chinese activity at Panatag on Thursday, expressing concern that a ruling by the UN tribunal in favor of the Philippines could be a trigger for Beijing to declare an exclusion zone in the South China Sea.
Richardson said the United States was weighing responses to such a move by China in the strategic waterway where $5 trillion in global trade passes every year and where islets, reefs and atolls are believe to be sitting atop vast energy reserves.
Junmar Pumicpic, 25, captain of the FB Bubhoy, said they were fishing near the shoal around 9 a.m. on March 5 when Chinese coast guards in rubber boats arrived and drove them away.
Well within PH territory
The shoal is located 230 kilometers from Masinloc, Zambales province, well within the Philippines’ 370-km exclusive economic zone.
It is also known as Bajo de Masinloc to residents of this coastal town.
“One of their rubber boats carried three men in uniform. [They] approached us and told us in English to leave,” Pumicpic said.
“This is China Coast Guard. Go back to Subic,” he said, quoting one of the Chinese coast guards as saying to them.
“We were surprised that they knew we were from Subic. After telling us to leave, they returned to the shoal and we thought [that was it],” Pumicpic said.
But after a few minutes, the boat returned and rammed the fishing boat several times, he said.
“We were all traumatized by what they did to us. Some of us were shaking. We thought they were going to sink our boat,” he said.
The boat held, but it was damaged in the ramming, he said.
‘Tug of war’
Another member of the fishing trip, Reynante Caitum, 22, said the Chinese coast guards engaged them in a “tug of war,” pulling the rope tied to a small boat that was aboard the fishing vessel.
“They wanted to get our service boat, but we resisted. We lifted the anchor to pull away and save our lives,” Caitum said.
Pumicpic said the Chinese coast guards came again on March 6 and drove them away shining blinding laser devices and powerful lights on them.
The incidents were captured on video, Pumicpic said.
“We gave the video to the Philippine Coast Guard detachment in Subic. I hope they will make an official report about it,” he said.
Pumicpic said the fishermen showed no fear, taking out knives and harpoons to defend themselves.
“We feared for our lives and we thought of our families. But if they intended to kill us, we were determined to fight back,” he said.
DFA has no information
In Manila, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it had no information about the incident.
Charles Jose, spokesperson for the DFA, said the incident had to be verified. With a report from Tarra Quismundo
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