AMID CHINA’S threat to penalize foreign fishermen in what it claims is its territory, Malacañang said that Filipino fishermen can go to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, but with “caution.”
Speaking to reporters, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said “safeguards” are in place to ensure the safety of Filipino fishermen in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
“They can proceed but they’re also advised to proceed with caution,” Abella said.
China’s Supreme Court said on Tuesday people caught “illegally” fishing in Chinese waters, including Panatag Shoal, could be fined and jailed for up to a year.
On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands ruled in favor of the Philippines and invalidated China’s so-called nine-dash line, its basis for claiming almost the entire South China Sea.
China has refused to recognize the ruling and has been turning away Filipino fishermen attempting to fish at Panatag Shoal.
Panatag Shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc, had been a traditional fishing ground for fishermen from Luzon.
Abella said Scarborough Shoal is not off-limits to fishermen, but only “artisanal” fishing is allowed.
“It’s not that we’re not allowing our fishermen to go there. We’re simply saying that there are certain kinds of fishermen who are allowed and who should be there and can’t fish inside,” Abella said.
“The ones who can fish near the area, inside the area, are artisanal fishers. Off the area, commercial fishers,” he added.
Abella reiterated that the Philippine government will push for a “diplomatic route” in resolving issues in the West Philippine Sea.
For the Department of Foreign Affairs, however, Filipino fishermen should “perhaps” avoid going to Panatag in the meantime.
“Perhaps we can do that for now for the safety of everyone,” said Charles Jose, spokesman of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Jose reiterated Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr.’s earlier call to exercise restraint and sobriety on the issue.
“On our side, let’s be calm first,” he told reporters. “Let’s wait for clarifications on how our fishermen can return without being subjected to harassment.”
Experts were divided on the China court’s ruling.
China risks another suit if it enforces its Supreme Court regulation, said political analyst Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
In a conference on the South China Sea on Wednesday, he pointed out that the tribunal had made it clear that traditional fishermen may continue fishing in Panatag.
No state is permitted to detain fishermen, he stressed.
Batongbacal explained that the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) prohibits any state from taking any action that causes prejudice and damage to the rights of the other party in a disputed territory.
“If [China] attempts to arrest Filipino fishermen in our own EEZ (exclusive economic zone), that will clearly be a violation of international law and they will be held internationally responsible for that,” Batongbacal said.
But in an interview with The Manila Times, Lauro Baja, former Foreign undersecretary for policy and Philippine permanent representative to the United Nations, said the tribunal only ruled that Panatag is a traditional fishing ground and it did not identify which country has jurisdiction over the shoal.
The Philippines also did not include in its submission to the tribunal that Panatag is part of the country’s 200-nautical-mile EEZ protected under Unclos.
“So basing on that, China argues that Scarborough is not part of the Philippines’ EEZ,” Baja said in a telephone interview.
“Technically, they are within their right because there was no pronouncement from the panel on the jurisdiction,” he said.
Richard Heydarian, professor at De La Salle University’s political science department, noted that China has been using various quasi-legal measures to give a veneer of legitimacy to its sweeping claims across the South China Sea.
“China’s judicial bodies don’t enjoy any shred of bureaucratic independence, so this is most likely an effort by the [administration of President Xi Jinping] to superimpose national laws on The Hague verdict based on international law,” he told The Manila Times.
He added: “But I don’t think these laws are absolute since in China, policy drives law, not the other way around. So likely it’s just a symbolic gesture to express Chinese rejection of the Unclos ruling last month.”
In the House of Representatives, some lawmakers took a hard-line stance.
“While pursuing peace through bilateral negotiations, we should also be ready for future skirmishes. We have to strengthen our military capability and enable them to protect the welfare of our countrymen,” said House Deputy Majority Leader Sherwin Tugna of the Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption party-list group.
Ifugao Rep. Teodoro Baguilat urged the government not to engage with China on a bilateral level if the Chinese continue to block Filipino fishermen.
“The government should do everything in its power to tell China not to arrest our fisher folk. No bilateral talks should start without China assuring fishing rights of our fisher folk,” Baguilat said in an interview.
But for Kabayan party-list Rep. Harry Roque, China should be given time to lick its wounds as a result of the July 12 ruling.
“It is unrealistic for us to assume that China will allow fishing now. We should let emotions run down before we discuss with China fishing in Panatag,” Roque said in a text message.
WITH LLANESCA T. PANTI