A maritime think tank said Monday that China’s clam harvesting fleets have returned to the disputed South China Sea after a significant decrease in activity since 2016.
In its report published on May 20, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative-Center for Strategic and International Studies said China’s “most destructive boats,” the clam harvesting fleets, were sighted in the South China Sea over the last six months.
“These fleets, which typically include dozens of small fishing vessels accompanied by a handful of larger ‘motherships,’ destroy vast swaths of coral reef in order to extract endangered giant clams,” AMTI-CSIS said.
AMTI-CSIS noted that since late 2018, the fleets, as shown by the satellite imagery, have been operating at Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal and throughout the Paracels, including at Bombay Reef.
“The clam boats have also returned to Scarborough Shoal, which is a particularly sensitive issue in Sino-Philippine relations,” the report said.
“The reef was already extensively damaged by the earlier phase of clam harvesting up to 2016. But imagery from December 2018 reveals the return of a large number of clam boats,” it added.
Scarborough is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
Earlier, the Philippine government protested China’s extraction of giant clams from Scarborough Shoal, calling it an affront on the country’s sovereignty.
In April, Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said Manila filed a diplomatic protest and will be taking legal action against China over the incident.
The Philippines, along with China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, have been locked in maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea that analysts fear as Asia’s next potential flashpoint for a major armed conflict.
Beijing has been claiming ownership over the entire SCS, invoking its so-called “nine-dash line” policy through which China claims as much as 90 percent of the contested waters. The line runs as far as 2,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland to within a few hundred kilometers of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Beijing maintains it owns any land or features contained within the line.
China’s claims over the dispute waters and its features had been debunked by an arbitral tribunal court in The Hague, Netherlands in July 2016, shortly after President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office.
Malacañang on Tuesday has called the Armed Forces to validate reports that China’s clam harvesting vessels are back in business in the West Philippine Sea.
In a Palace press briefing, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Command should verify the report by the Washington-based AMTI-CSIS.
Panelo said the Palace would let the Department of Foreign Affairs determine whether or not the government should pursue a diplomatic protest based on the report.
Meanwhile, Panelo declined to answer questions on China’s imposition of an annual fishing moratorium in the contested waters.
The fishing ban, which started on May 1 and will last until Aug. 16, includes waters covered in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
The Palace official said concerns pertaining to other countries should be referred to the DFA.
He would not say if the fishing ban violated the country’s sovereignty.
“Draw your conclusion. That’s our position,” Panelo said.
“Is it objectionable for a sovereign country to have its property or island assaulted or intruded into? If your answer is yes, then the answer to your question is yes,” he added.
Locsin had recently played down China’s clam harvesting and the fishing ban.
“Clams? Again? O, it’s just an allegation,” Locsin said in his Twitter account.
“We are not acknowledging the Chinese fishing ban in the South China Sea because we are a sovereign country. When we have a coast guard fleet armed to the teeth, we will see if we will impose a fishing/claming ban in the same places,” he added.
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