FILIPINO fishermen have been fishing just outside, not inside, the lagoon of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a Washington, D.C. think tank claims, citing recent sattelite images.
On its website, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the prevailing situation was the “status quo” since mid-2012, when China seized control of the resource-rich shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc.
Prior to 2012, Filipino fishing boats went in and out of the lagoon, which lies within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone guaranteed of coastal states by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The seizure of Panatag prompted the previous Aquino arbitration to sue Beijing before the Permament Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which ruled in favor of Manila on July 12 this year.
On October 28, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella told reporters Filipino fishermen have been fishing at Panatag Shoal in the past three days without interference from the Chinese coast guard.
This came days after President Rodrigo Duterte’s state visit to China, during which, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said, both countries reached a “friendly understanding” to let Filipino fishermen go back to Panatag, a “traditional” fishing ground, without Manila and Beijing dropping their claims.
‘Only at China’s forbearance’
A satellite image on the AMTI website, dated October 29 or a day after the Palace announcement, placed a red marker at the mouth or entrance of the lagoon, representing a Chinese government vessel.
At least 17 Filipino boats were shown at the “exterior” of the Panatag reefs. Two Chinese non-government vessels were close by.
“Despite earlier reports, it appears that Filipino fishermen are still not fishing inside Scarborough Shoal. New imagery from October 29 showed a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel anchored just inside the mouth of the lagoon, where it has been for most of the period since China seized the shoal in 2012, apparently blocking access,” the AMTI said.
The think tank said that when Filipino fishermen were able to approach Panatag, it was “always at the forbearance of the Chinese Coast Guard,” citing satellite imagery from May 2016 and January 2015.
“Since China seized Scarborough in mid-2012, Filipino fishermen have been unable to access the rich waters within its lagoon. But they have usually been able to get close enough to fish around the shoal’s fringing reef, at least until the CCG shows up,” it said.
Thus, the October 29 satellite image “suggests that the ‘friendly understanding’ President Rodrigo Duterte negotiated during his trip to Beijing was only for Chinese authorities to relax the stricter blockade of the reef … that they put in place following the July 12 arbitral ruling.”
The AMTI noted that on October 31, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the situation at Panatag “is and will remain unchanged,” as “The Chinese side has always been exercising normal jurisdiction over Huangyan Dao (Scarborough Shoal).”
Following the Philippines’ legal victory, more Chinese vessels were seen in the area, it claimed.
“In fact, the number of Chinese coast guard and civilian ships around the shoal has increased since at least early September, hitting levels not seen in satellite imagery since early 2014,” it said.
On September 3, it added, the Philippines’ defense department released photos of four Chinese coast guard and civilian ships around the shoal.
Duterte, the AMTI said, “suggested upon his return from Beijing that he might have struck a deal to allow Filipino fishermen to return to fishing along the outskirts of the shoal, but not within its lagoon.”
“This condition would ostensibly apply to Chinese fishermen as well, as a conservation measure to protect the coral and breeding grounds of fish within the lagoon,” it said.
But the move is “late” as Chinese poachers have “devastated the local ecosystem, chopping up much of the reef in order to extract giant clams,” it said, again showing satellite images to back up its claim.
“These clam-digging operations have destroyed roughly half of the reef surface around Scarborough Shoal, as evidenced by the wide semi-circular scars they leave behind in the before and after shots,” the AMTI said.
FELIPE F. SALVOSA II