Gov’t urged: Keep pressing China for Panatag access
The Philippine government should continue to work to ensure that Filipino fisherfolk would have unhindered access to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, according to a maritime law expert.
“Negotiation should be for them to stop harassing/interfering with our fishing vessels. Our fishermen should be free to go in and out as needed,” Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea told the Inquirer.
“It’s important to keep up the pressure to just let them fish inside again,” he said.
During an aerial surveillance patrol earlier this month, the Inquirer saw dozens of Filipino fishing vessels escorted by two Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ships around Panatag Shoal despite the continued presence of China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels and its maritime militia.
But it was also noticeable that there were no Filipino fishing vessels inside the lagoon as two CCG ships were at the shoal’s entrance.
Panatag Shoal, a rich fishing ground, is a small ring of reefs located within the country’s exclusive economic zone. In 2012, China seized control of the shoal after a tense standoff with the Philippine Navy, prompting the Philippine government to file a case against it before the international arbitration court.
Filipino fisherfolk have complained about China’s harassment of fishing boats on Panatag Shoal and other parts of the West Philippine Sea on several occasions, leading to the filing of diplomatic protests.
The Chinese government claims to own nearly the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, which was rejected by the 2016 arbitration ruling. The same ruling also classified the shoal as a traditional fishing ground that should be shared with neighboring countries like China and Vietnam.
Joely Saligan, a 43-year-old fisherman from Subic, Zambales, who recently returned from a two-week fishing trip to Panatag Shoal, has experienced Chinese harassment many times in the past. But he added that the situation has improved since 2018.
To Saligan and his crew, PCG ships are a welcome sight, particularly as they provide escort to small boats like theirs and even distribute relief supplies and conduct free medical checkups at sea. “We are happy when we see the presence of the Philippine Coast Guard, the Filipino flag flying there. We are grateful for the help they give us,” he said.
Saligan observed that Chinese ships appear to be restless whenever PCG ships were nearby.
But other fishermen like Christopher de Vera recently told Agence France-Presse that he and his crew still feel like “a thief in your own backyard” even as they have to stay at sea much longer to catch more fish.
The PCG earlier said it was trying to be more visible in Panatag Shoal to encourage more fisherfolk to go back to the area.
Since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office, the Philippines has filed at least 48 diplomatic protests against China’s incursions, and he has vowed not to cede an inch of the country’s territory.
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