30 Chinese vessels sighted at Scarborough Shoal
MANILA, Philippines – Instead of calling its ships from Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), Beijing has sent more vessels there in the past two weeks, according to security sources monitoring the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
As of Friday, there was no word from the Department of Foreign Affairs about the swarm of Chinese fishing boats at the shoal.
As of Thursday, some 30 Chinese vessels were sighted occupying the horseshoe-shaped reef just 230 kilometers west of Zambales province, well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone under international maritime laws.
On July 8, there were only three Chinese vessels at the shoal, the security sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
The sources did not say how many maritime vessels and how many fishing boats were at the fishing resource-rich shoal.
The increase must have come with China’s sending fishing expeditions to East Asian waters as a display of its growing economic role in the region.
On Sunday, a fleet of 30 fishing boats from China arrived at Johnson South Reef near Vietnam in the Spratly archipelago. It was the largest fishing expedition to come from China in recent years, and it was a clear show of force against Vietnam, which passed a new maritime law in June putting disputed parts of the Spratlys under its sovereignty.
Chinese and Vietnamese patrol vessels exchanged fire in a skirmish at Johnson South Reef on March 14, 1988. Vietnam lost a patrol vessel and took home another that was heavily damaged in the fire fight. Vietnam’s defeat left China in effective control of the reef, where it now has a maritime observation station.
Chinese fishing fleets are ranging farther north, and one has gotten into trouble off Russia.
Earlier this week, Russian coast guard vessels chased and fired on Chinese fishing vessels that intruded on Russia’s exclusive economic zone off Primorsky in the remote northeast. The Russians arrested 36 Chinese fishermen and seized two fishing boats.
Philippine and Chinese vessels faced off with each other at the shoal for two months starting early April, and Manila’s ships would have been still there had stormy weather not forced President Benigno Aquino III to order them home in mid-June.
The DFA said China had committed to withdraw its vessels, which would have ended the standoff.
But China called home only its fishing boats. Its maritime vessels stayed outside the lagoon, keeping watch over the shoal.
The departure of a Philippine Coast Guard vessel and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources survey ship from the shoal on the night of June 15 left China in effective control of Scarborough, though President Aquino had said he would send back government vessels there if China did not call its ships home.
China did not. It has been more than a month since, but Aquino has yet to order the Coast Guard to take the Philippine flag back to Scarborough Shoal.
A two-month ban the Philippines imposed on fishing at the shoal in May ended on Sunday, but the BFAR on Wednesday cautioned fishermen against venturing out there, citing danger to small craft in those waters during typhoon season. It is obvious, however, that the government is avoiding the prospect of having to negotiate for the release of Filipino fishermen being arrested by China at the shoal.
China also declared a fishing ban at the shoal and much of the West Philippine Sea, including the waters surrounding the Spratlys. The ban is supposed to end on August 1 (not mid-August as earlier reported), but Chinese fishing boats have been going in and out of the shoal’s lagoon despite the prohibition, and the arrival of 30 fishing boats at Johnson South Reef on Sunday shows the ban, supposedly for conservation of resources, is intended to keep competition out.
Aquino will address a joint session of Congress on Monday, and he is expected to report what his government has done toward bringing the Philippines’ dispute with China over Scarborough Shoal to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
China has refused to take the dispute to any international body for arbitration. Last week, with the cooperation of Cambodia, China frustrated an effort by the Philippines and Vietnam to get their territorial problems with China mentioned in a joint statement at the conclusion of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh. As a result, the ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement, unprecedented in the bloc’s 45-year history.
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