MANILA (Reuters) - China’s coastguard has prevented Filipino boats from fishing around the hotly contested Scarborough Shoal, Philippine officials said on Friday, after Beijing kept a promise to ignore a court ruling voiding its vast South China Sea claims.
A dispute over the shoal, 124 nautical miles northwest of the Philippines mainland was one of Manila’s main reasons for bringing international legal action against China in 2013.
Military officials and fishermen in northwest province of Pangasinan said Chinese coastguard vessels remained in place at Scarborough and were still preventing fishermen from entering the shoal’s lagoon.
Many boats had stayed away until the situation was clearer, officials said.
“The fishermen here have a wait-and-see attitude and are feeling their pulse whether it is safe to go to Scarborough,” Luis Madarang, an official responsible for fishing in Infanta town, said by phone.
“We are not stopping them but cautioned them to stay away from any trouble in the area. It will not help the situation if they will challenge the Chinese who are still there.”
A local television crew joined a fishing boat to try to reach the Scarborough Shoal in what a news anchor said was fishermen testing China’s compliance of the ruling on Thursday.
Footage from ABS-CBN news showed a handful of black-clad Chinese coastguard on a dinghy approaching the Filipino boat and using a megaphone to tell them to leave.
PRESSURE TO ENFORCE
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled on Tuesday ruled that because it has rocks above high tide, Scarborough Shoal was entitled to 12 miles of territorial sea, although it did not say who owns it.
They acknowledged that fishermen from many nations, including the Philippines and China, have traditionally fished there said China had “unlawfully prevented” Filipino fishermen from operating their after seizing Scarborough in 2012.
Since then, Filipino fishermen have found different jobs, trawled elsewhere, or played a dangerous game of chicken with Chinese vessels which have been accused of chasing, ramming or blasting them with water cannon.
China refused to participate in the arbitration, saying the case was illegal, the panel lacked jurisdiction and that it had 2,000 years of history in the South China Sea.
Asked whether China was currently allowing Philippines fishermen to fish around Scarborough Shoal, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the decision of the court would have no effect on China’s South China Sea policy.
On Friday, China’s official air force microblog ran a picture of a plane flying over a reef. It did not say when or where the picture was taken, but Chinese media identified it as Scarborough Shoal.
The Pangasinan fishermen are seen by many Filipinos as victims of Chinese bullying.
Their plight has recently attracted much media attention and the government has come under pressure to help them by enforcing the court ruling. How it intends to do that is so far unclear.
“China will hold on to that shoal, for sure, and deny our fishermen access,” said a senior navy commander who has previously joined diplomatic missions to China. He declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media.
“It’s best for the government to negotiate with China.”
The court made clear that although the shoal was located within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, it would still have to share it with other countries.
But there appeared to be confusion among some fishing communities and officials about a ruling that was overwhelmingly in the Philippines’ favor.
“China is ignoring it so we will wait for our government to take action,” said Madarang, the municipal official in charge of fishing. “The shoal is 100 percent ours and we cannot share it with China.”
Elmer Madriaga, leader of a church-based group that helps fishermen in Masinloc, said it was time for China to move on.
“It belongs to us,” he said. “So we should reclaim it and hope the government finds a peaceful and diplomatic means to remove the Chinese ships.”
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Lincoln Feast
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