The Philippine Coast Guard drove away Chinese militia ships from a Manila-claimed reef in the South China Sea in late April, the national security adviser said, while declaring that Filipino fishermen are exempt from Beijing’s annual fishing ban in the disputed waterway and other seas.
The coast guard’s BRP Cabra, backed by other ships, shooed away seven Chinese ships from Sabina Shoal on April 27, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said. The reef is 130 nautical miles west of Puerto Princesa in Palawan province, within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“The crew of the BRP Cabra issued challenges to the offending vessels, but elicited no response from the CMM,” Esperon said in a statement released late Tuesday night, referring to the “Chinese Maritime Militia.”
“After around 20 minutes however, the CMM vessels dispersed and left the shoal after being challenged by BRP Cabra,” he said, describing the Chinese ships as having initially formed a “stationary linear formation.”
On Wednesday, the coast guard released footage and photos of the confrontation at Sabina Shoal.
Esperon, who also serves as chairman of the country’s National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), also rejected China’s annual fishing ban. It began on May 1 and runs through Aug. 16 in parts of the sea that include waters inside Manila’s EEZ.
The West Philippine Sea is Manila’s designation for territory it claims in the South China Sea.
“This fishing ban does not apply to our fishermen and the NTF-WPS opposes China’s imposition of the same over the areas within the territory and jurisdiction of the Philippines,” Esperon said.
“The NTF-WPS reiterates that our fisherfolk are encouraged to go out and fish in our waters in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, for comment on Esperon’s statements.
Beijing’s annual fishing ban began Saturday in the Bohai Sea, Yellow Sea, East China Sea and portions of the South China Sea.
Involving more than 100,000 Chinese fishing boats and nearly 1 million Chinese fishermen, Beijing imposes the annual ban to preserve marine fisheries, Chinese state-run media has said.
Although the ban expressly covers only Chinese fishermen, Beijing’s law enforcement agencies including its coast guard “would target major violation cases and severely clamp down on organized marine fishery crimes,” it said.
In recent years, Filipino and Vietnamese fishermen have been forced to observe Beijing’s fishing ban in the South China Sea, despite their protests, because of the presence of Chinese government ships.
Largely forced out of their traditional fishing grounds, Filipino fishermen have claimed a decline of as much as 80 percent in their catch since the Chinese took control of certain parts of the South China Sea.
The Vietnam Fisheries Society (VFS) expressed its opposition to China’s fishing ban – echoing the criticism made by the Vietnamese government last week that it was a violation of Vietnamese sovereignty and international law.
The VFS said that the ban could cause clashes between Vietnam’s law enforcement forces and fishermen and China’s coastguard, and impede the usual fishing activities of Vietnamese fishermen on their traditional fishing grounds.
“We demand that China end this fishing ban in the East Sea/South China Sea, including in the waters under Vietnam’s sovereignty,” the VFS said in a document submitted to the Vietnamese government on Tuesday.
The VFS represents Vietnamese fishermen, aquaculture producers, fisheries processors and organizations providing services in the fisheries sector.
Hundreds of Chinese ships spotted
Prior to the April 27 incident at Sabina Shoal, the NTF-WPS had reported spotting an estimated 240 Chinese ships throughout the West Philippine Sea. It later updated that figure to 160.
In March, Manila reported a “swarming” of what it called Chinese militia ships at Whitsun Reef, also within the Philippine EEZ.
The Whitsun incident triggered a diplomatic spat between Manila and Beijing, which dismissed the accusation as an “unnecessary irritation,” and insisted the area was Chinese territory.
The Philippine government has been filing daily protests since April over what it says has been a constant presence of Chinese fishing boats backed by its maritime militia in its territories.
“The Philippines is not deterred from defending our national interest, patrimony and our dignity as a people with all that we have,” Esperon said on Tuesday.
Law enforcement patrols are to continue in Philippine-claimed areas in the South China Sea, Esperon said, as he reiterated a call to China and other claimant nations to “comply with their international obligations.”
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims to portions of the South China Sea, while China claims virtually all of it. Although Indonesia does not consider itself a party to the dispute, China has claims that overlap with Indonesia’s EEZ in the South China Sea.
A July 2016 international arbitral award declared the Philippines’ claim to its EEZ in the South China Sea valid over China’s sweeping claim.
This year, Beijing’s passage of a law allowing the Chinese Coast Guard to fire at ships it perceives to be intruding in Chinese-claimed territory raised the stakes.
Beijing maintains a coast guard presence around the Scarborough Shoal even though it is 118 nautical miles west of the Philippine island of Luzon, within Manila’s EEZ.
Recent Philippine patrols reported spotting three China Coast Guard ships around the shoal.
On Monday, the Filipino food security advocacy group Tugon Kabuhayan said the Philippines stood to lose as much as 7.2 million kg (15.87 million pounds) of fish for every month that Chinese ships force Filipinos out of their fishing grounds in the South China Sea.
The fishermen’s advocacy group Pamalakaya petitioned the United Nations on April 30 to nullify Beijing’s coast guard law, investigate the environmental damage Chinese ships have caused in the South China Sea, and to “demilitarize” the strategic and resource-rich waterway.
Source: Radio Free Asia