SUBIC, Zambales—Have the Chinese lifted their blockade of Panatag Shoal?
Filipino fishermen do not know for sure, but eight groups of fishermen from Zambales province entered Panatag Shoal on Wednesday without interference from the Chinese Coast Guard, which had been blockading the rich fishing ground since 2012.
“We received a radio message that some of our fellow fishermen were able to approach the shoal. The Chinese Coast Guard did not intercept their boats,” boat captain Aniceto Achina, 40, said on Wednesday.
He said the fishermen who gained access to Panatag, internationally known as Scarborough Shoal, asked him to send additional supplies, confident they would be able to fish there without being harassed by Chinese vessels.
Duterte visit to China
President Duterte discussed the return of Filipino fishermen to Panatag with Chinese leaders during his state visit to China last week.
On Sunday, while visiting typhoon-ravaged northern Luzon, Mr. Duterte said Filipino fishermen might be able to return to the shoal, but that he was not sure if the Chinese would keep their word.
The Philippine delegation to China rejected language in a proposal that indicated the Chinese were going to “allow” or “permit” Filipino fishermen to go back to the shoal.
Use of such language would not be consistent with the ruling in July of the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that Panatag is a common fishing ground, open to both Filipino and Chinese fishermen.
China, which claims almost all of the South China Sea, seized the shoal after a two-month standoff with the Philippines in 2012, forcing Manila to challenge Beijing’s excessive claim to the strategic waterway.
The Hague ruling
The tribunal ruled heavily in favor of the Philippines, saying that China’s claims have no basis in international law and that Beijing has violated Manila’s rights to fish and explore for resources in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
China, which ignored the proceedings, rejected the court’s ruling and continued blockading the shoal.
Beijing, however, softened after Mr. Duterte, who was elected in May, sought to mend ties with China and pressed his diplomatic strategy by making a four-day visit to the Chinese capital with a large business delegation last week.
Disagreement over language in the Panatag proposal apparently did not stop the Chinese from loosening their grip on the shoal.
Achina and his 11-member crew left this town at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday and headed for Panatag to join the other Filipino fishermen already there.
Another fisherman, Rodel David, 30, said he and other fishermen would seize every chance to fish again at Panatag.
“We have prepared our boats for trips to other fishing grounds, but since some of our fellow fishermen have started fishing at the shoal again, we will join them,” David said.
He reported that fishermen from Bataan and Pangasinan provinces have also been able to return to Panatag.
“One of China’s patrol ships approached the boats of our fellow fishermen as they tried to enter the shoal. Surprisingly, they were not driven away,” he said.TVJ