Row over boats in disputed territory

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2012, 12:00am


Manila and Beijing are bickering over the number of Chinese vessels surrounding a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, despite ongoing talks to resolve a long-running stand-off.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said yesterday that nearly 100 Chinese ships had been sent to Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island in China and as Panatag Shoal in the Philippines.

'The Philippines, therefore, demands that China's vessels immediately pull out from Bajo de Masinloc [another name for the shoal] and the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone and for China to refrain from taking further actions that exacerbate the situation in the West Philippine Sea,' Philippine foreign affairs department spokesman Raul Hernandez said yesterday.

Hernandez said the number of Chinese vessels had dropped to six on Sunday. But the Philippine Coast Guard spotted five Chinese government vessels, 16 Chinese fishing boats and 56 utility boats in waters near the shoal on Monday night, many inside the shoal's lagoon.

'The number of utility boats went up to 76 on Tuesday,' he said, adding that they were used by the fishermen to collect fish in shallow waters.

When asked if the Chinese crews were building something inside the lagoon, Hernandez said: 'I don't know.'

'We are really concerned about the increase of vessels in the area because the idea is [that] we should be working at defusing the tensions in the Scarborough Shoal and the Philippines have been doing that,' he said.

'We are trying to defuse the tension. But these actions of the Chinese have not helped in defusing the tension.'

Hernandez said his department was in touch with Chinese ambassador Ma Keqing.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said yesterday that China has more than 20 ships near the shoal, about the same as in previous years.

'As [we] know, China has more than 20 fishing boats in the area of Huangyan Island in the South China Sea, which is about the same as the previous years,' Hong told a regular briefing.

'The presence of fishing boats in the area is in accordance with relevant Chinese law as well as the rules of a fishing ban.'

Hong accused the Philippines of carrying out 'some provocative actions recently around Huangyan Island', prompting China to enhance some specific control measures to deal with it. He did not detail the measures taken.

Professor Zhang Mingliang, a South China Sea expert at Guangzhou's Jinan University, said traditional fishing tools such as single gill nets and fishing tackle were allowed to be used during the fishing moratorium.

'I believe there are not as many Chinese fishing boats as the Philippines said, and our fishermen are law-abiding,' he said. 'But it is still a pity that no third party witness can provide us with accurate figures and reliable proof.'

Zhang said Filipino diplomats were skilled in turning disputes with China into international issues.

'Almost all Filipino diplomats are members of the elite and they are gutsy in challenging China to win global sympathy,' he said. 'The Filipinos aim to win some military support or aid to restore their fishery from the United States by showing their courage and the value of containing China in the Asia-Pacific region.'

Zhou Fangyin, a global strategy expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Manila's continued provocations were aimed at testing the Beijing leadership's tolerance and wisdom.

'China should tolerate the never-ending challenges and keep calm,' he said. 'We can't be provoked because the Philippines would not give up such a golden chance to show off.

'We had better just ignore it. The wrangle will soon come to an end if we don't join in.'