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Pinoys now free to fish in Scarborough—Palace

FILIPINO fishermen are now be able to fish in the disputed Scarborough Shoal without being intercepted by Chinese Coast Guard vessels more than four years after the Chinese gained control of the area, Malacañang said Friday. 

“For the past three days, it has been observed that there are no longer any Chinese Coast Guard vessels and that Filipino fishing boats are no longer being intercepted and that they are now able to fish in the area,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said in a Palace press briefing. 

“All I can say is that at this stage, it has been observed that there are no longer any Chinese coast guards in the area,” Abella told reporters.

Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella
In a television interview, Kabayan partylist Rep. Harry Roque, who was part of the President’s delegation to China during his state visit there, said the two governments had already reached an agreement on fishing rights in the disputed shoal, but have yet to sign the actual document.

Roque said that China wanted the Philippines to agree to a formal declaration that Beijing was “allowing” Filipino fishermen to return to Scarborough Shoal, but Manila did not agree because the proposal would go against the ruling of an international tribunal that the common fishing ground did not belong to any one state.

“My understanding is there is already a modus vivendi, there is already an agreement that we can fish. What has kept us from signing anything in writing is apparently the problem with words to be used,” he told ANC. 

“China wants to say that they have allowed us to fish and Philippine authorities refuse that language because we don’t need anyone’s permission to fish in traditional fishing grounds, but even if they have not completely threshed out the language of the agreement, there’s already a modus vivendi, an understanding that Scarborough fishermen can fish again and to me that’s very important because the fishermen are my clients,” Roque said.

But Abella would not say that an agreement had been reached.

“All we know is based on results, the fishermen can now go into those waters,” he said. 

In his visit to typhoon victims last Sunday, President Rodrigo Duterte said that fishermen may soon be allowed to fish again, after the issue was discussed during his four-day visit to China last week.

“We’ll just wait for a few more days. We may be able to return to the Scarborough Shoal and our countrymen may be able to fish there again,” the President said during his visit to typhoon victims in Tuguegarao Sunday.

China Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin had earlier denied that the issue was discussed during the meeting between Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying that the two leaders had only agreed to strengthen fisheries cooperation in the disputed waters. 

Scarborough is a flashpoint in the South China Sea conflict. The shoal, which the Chinese call Huangyan and the Filipinos call Panatag, is a U-shaped chain of reefs and rocks that lies about 120 miles off the coast of Luzon, not far from Subic Bay, the former US naval base that still sees regular visits from US ships. 

China claims historical rights over the shoal even if the traditional fishing ground is well within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

Chinese occupation of the shoal started in April 2012 when Chinese surveillance ships blocked a Philippine Navy vessel that was chasing Chinese poachers.

Chinese aggression heightened however after the Philippines scored a victory in an arbitration ruling that China’s nine-dash line has no legal basis.

Duterte and Xi have agreed to enter into bilateral negotiations to resolve the maritime dispute, far from the Aquino administration’s previous stance of engaging only in multilateral talks on overlapping territorial claims.

Roque, citing a Philippine source who was present at the closed-door meetings, said language was the primary constraint that kept China and the Philippines from formalizing the agreement, though “in principle” both sides agreed that Filipinos should be able to fish again at the shoal.

Despite Beijing’s push over on the matter, the administration apparently invoked the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which was reflected in Duterte’s joint statement with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued Wednesday after visiting Japan. 

The fishermen’s group Pamalakaya welcomed the developments in the Scarborough Shoal.

Since Tuesday, Filipino fishermen from Zambales and Pangasinan have been fishing in Scarborough Shoal without being harassed or chased by the Chinese Coast Guard.

“We welcome President Duterte’s concrete deeds to make our fishermen return to their traditional fishing grounds in Scarborough Shoal. Moreover, it is an initial victory for the Filipino fishermen who consistently aired their collective voices to assert their rights to the West Philippine Sea,” Fernando Hicap, Pamalakaya chairman, said in a statement. With Sandy Araneta

Topics: Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella , Filipino fishermen , Scarborough Shoal , Chinese Coast Guard , China
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