Fishers may return to Panatag by July 15

MANILA – Filipino fishermen may go back to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal on July 15 or upon the lifting of the fishing ban imposed by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), despite China’s continued claim of sovereignty over the potentially oil and mineral rich area just off Zambales province.

This was announced on Saturday by Malacañang, which also declared that the Philippines does not recognize China’s fishing ban in the area.

“Our concern is the safety of the fishermen,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said.

“If in the assessment of the BFAR they can go back, that also has to be discussed with the other agencies that are involved in this,” she added.

The deployment of bigger vessels of the Philippine Coast Guard and BFAR to the Panatag area would have to be evaluated first by President Aquino and concerned departments and agencies.

Valte also said it would be up to the Department of Foreign Affairs to answer China’s statements regarding military exercises in the West Philippine Sea, particularly those involving US and Philippine armed forces.

BFAR’s lifting of the fishing ban will come half a month earlier than the scheduled lifting of a similar ban imposed by China. China’s fishing ban is until Aug. 1 and covers nearly the entire West Philippine Sea.

BFAR national director Asis Perez said the fishing ban had nothing to do with the territorial dispute with China over Panatag.

China was the first to announce a fishing ban in May.

Aquino approved the fishing ban in and around Panatag to protect marine resources and replenish fish stock.

Officials said BFAR has been imposing seasonal fishing bans in the area since 1999, usually from May 16 to Aug. 1.

China said its fishing ban is meant to curb overfishing in waters it claims as its own.

Perez said “conservational fish bans” in 13 other areas were lifted in February and the fishing ban in Panatag Shoal is the only one still in effect.

Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims over some islets, shoals, and coral reefs in the West Philippine Sea.

The military, meanwhile, said it is unwavering in its commitment to uphold the country’s sovereignty amid China’s growing assertiveness in claiming Panatag and other areas in the West Philippine Sea.

“The AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) will continue to perform its mandate as a protector of the people and state and will continue to uphold our sovereignty and the integrity of our national territory,” AFP spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos said when asked if the military would recall its maritime and air patrols in the Panatag area following China’s warning against “military provocations.”

But he said the AFP acknowledges the preeminence of dialogue and a peaceful approach to resolving the problem, which is the government’s official position.

“We will remain supportive of the government’s initiatives to attain a peaceful resolution of the Panatag Shoal issue,” Burgos said.

Chinese maritime vessels have not left the shoal since April when they prevented Philippine Navy personnel from arresting Chinese poachers on eight fishing boats.

Protected by large Chinese surveillance ships, the poachers managed to slip away with their illegal harvest of endangered corals, giant clams and live sharks.

Some officials maintain the AFP should not abandon its regular patrol in the West Philippine Sea despite China’s threat.

Earlier, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said the “determination and will of China’s military to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering.”

Geng was particularly referring to the launching of the largest-ever “Rim of the Pacific” Naval exercises in Hawaii involving 22 nations, including the US, India, Russia, Australia and the Philippines.

China was not invited to take part or observe the exercises.
In the Philippines, 750 Filipino sailors and 200 Coast Guard personnel will take part in tomorrow’s yearly CARAT exercise with US forces in Sarangani Bay in General Santos City. CARAT stands for Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training.

US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, for his part, has reiterated his country’s preference for a peaceful approach to resolving the West Philippine Sea issue.

“We have sought to be very consistent, very principle-based in our approach. We will not take a position on territorial dispute. We oppose the use of force or coercion,” Campbell said at a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Wednesday.

“We have seen recent challenges. I will simply say that we support a peaceful process. I will tell you that I think behind the scenes we’ve seen some recent diplomacy that is hopeful. I must commend our colleagues in the Philippines who are working hard to ensure that peace and stability prevails,” Campbell said.

Although the US position is not to get involved in territorial disputes, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing concerns on the US accession to UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that Chinese claims have exceeded what has been permitted by the UNCLOS.

“One of the questions that we dealt with and heard a lot in 2009 was whether the US recognized and understood there was a drama playing in Asia in which the US perhaps was not as fully engaged as might have been or needs to be,” Campbell said.

“But clearly, the relationship with the Philippines I would say quite directly that we are in the midst of a renaissance in that relationship. I think for too long we did not focus on that relationship,” he said.

“I will say that we recognize that some of the looming challenges exist in the South China Sea and what we have seen of late has been an increase in diplomacy between ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and China about aspects associated with a potential code of conduct,” he said.

The official also voiced President Barack Obama’s strong support for the Philippines.

“It is very clear the President underscored our strong support of the Philippines. We laid out clearly when the President visited a number of areas that we are going to be working together,” Campbell said when asked whether the US might just be paying lip service to the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

“We want to assist them in the building of capacity. We also believe there will be future, appropriate engagements between the US and the Philippines that will improve our mutual capacities and we believe our relationships and the security treaty between us is very strong,” he said.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said that resolving the territorial dispute with China would not be easy, even as he called for more “patriotism” from Filipinos.

According to Del Rosario, a map prepared by the US Armed Forces in 1903 was given to him during his last visit to Washington. The map includes Panatag Shoal as part of the island groups of the Philippines, contrary to China’s claim that it is not included in the Philippine boundaries under the Treaty of Paris.

Maps dating back to the early Spanish colonial period, which were the standard references for explorers and mariners and acknowledged by governments and regimes, also clearly show Panatag Shoal, also called Panacot, just off the Philippine coast.

“While we continue to assert our sovereignty over Bajo de Masinloc and sovereign rights over the waters around it, we are committed to defusing the tension in the area through diplomatic discussions and consultations,” DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said on Friday.

“We urge our Chinese friends to refrain from making comments that would tend to re-escalate the situation in the shoal,” he said.

Leave a Reply