Philippines to charge nine Chinese fishermen for ‘poaching’ in South China Sea

Manila to repatriate two Chinese minors among crew arrested for allegedly killing turtles, but risks Beijing's ire

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 3:56pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 May, 2014, 7:32am

The Philippines has charged nine Chinese fishermen arrested in disputed waters in the South China Sea with environmental crimes, even though Beijing demanded their release.

The decision is likely to further stoke tensions between the two countries. Chinese observers said Manila wanted to counter-balance Beijing's rising assertiveness over the disputed waters.

Philippine prosecutor Allan Ross Rodriguez said the fishermen, detained last Tuesday off the disputed Half Moon Shoal, 80km from the coast of Palawan, would be charged with poaching and catching a protected species.

Filipino police said they found hundreds of sea turtles - a protected species - on the Chinese fishing vessel. Police detained the 11 crew members, but two were found to be minors and would be repatriated without charges.

The court is expected to summon the fishermen to enter a plea within 10 days, with bail set at 70,000 pesos (HK$12,400) each.

Anyone guilty of collecting "rare, threatened or endangered" species can be subject to imprisonment of 20 years under Philippine law. Poaching is punishable by fines of up to US$200,000.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: "We have already expressed China's position and demands to the Philippines many times.

"We hope the two sides can properly handle this issue as quickly as possible."

Families of the fishermen denied they had been trading or poaching sea turtles.

"We don't have the equipment to catch sea turtles. This is banned in China, and we dare not violate the laws," said Li Yudi, father of crewman Li Xianghui.

Huang Ke, whose cousin was on board, said the incident would deter fishermen from operating in the waters. "If the fishermen are jailed and fined, I will not go to the waters because it is getting more risky now," he said.

Zhuang Guotu , an expert in regional affairs at Xiamen University, said Manila had blown up this incident "to square off with Beijing".

"The Philippines is asking Beijing to be more restrained in the South China Sea," he said.

At an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit over the weekend, the Philippines presented a united front with Vietnam, which is involved in another bitter exchange with Beijing over the South China Sea. The 10-member bloc expressed "serious concern" about the maritime disputes.

Vietnamese state media reported that a Vietnamese patrol boat and several Chinese vessels blasted each other with water cannon yesterday near a Chinese oil rig set up on May 1 in the disputed Paracel Islands, which China calls the Xisha Islands, and Vietnam calls the Hoang Sa Islands. Tuoi Tre said it was the first time Vietnamese vessels had responded to "aggressive Chinese actions". Both sides accuse the other of ramming ships.

Zhuang said Beijing may hit back at Manila by sending more vessels to the disputed waters and detaining Philippine ships.

Du Jifeng , of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing may impose economic sanctions against Manila but would not go too far to avoid upsetting Asean.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Associated Press