China fishing fleet arrives in Spratlys

Posted on July 16, 2012

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FISHING IN TROUBLED WATERS In this photo released by China’s Xinhua news agency, a Chinese fishery administration ship (background) guards a Chinese fishing vessel near Yongshu Reef in the Spratly Islands, in the West Philippine Sea, on Sunday. A fleet of 30 fishing vessels arrived at the reef where China has an ocean observatory and will spend 10 days of fishing, according to Xinhua. AP / XINHUA

BEIJING—A big fleet of Chinese fishing vessels arrived at the disputed Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) on Sunday, state media said, amid tensions with China’s neighbors over rival claims to the area.

The Philippines, locked in a territorial row with China over Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea, on Monday said the Chinese fishing fleet should not cross into Philippine territory in the Spratlys.

But the Chinese fishing expedition is apparently not a show of force directed at the Philippines but at Vietnam, which claims the Paracel Islands and parts of the Spratlys where the fleet arrived on Sunday.

The fleet of 30 fishing vessels arrived near the Yongshu Reef in the afternoon after setting off on Thursday from the Chinese province of Hainan, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Yongshu Reef is the Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys that both China and Vietnam claim. Their competing claims erupted into a naval skirmish on March 14, 1988. Vietnam lost the firefight. It lost one vessel and took home another heavily damaged.

Vietnam’s loss left China in effective control of the reef. China later occupied seven other reefs in the area. Today it has a maritime observation station on Johnson South Reef.

The Philippines claims parts of the Spratlys, but not Johnson South Reef.

Don’t intrude

Even so, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Monday said that the Chinese fishing vessels “must not intrude into the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.”

In a statement issued after news of the fleet’s arrival reached Manila, the DFA asked China to “respect the sovereign rights of the Philippines to the resources” within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.

Chinese fishing boats regularly travel to the Spratlys, a potentially oil-rich archipelago that China claims as part of its territory on historical grounds.

But the fleet is the largest ever launched from Hainan, according to the Xinhua report.

The fleet includes a 3,000-ton supply ship, and a patrol vessel has also traveled to the area to provide protection, the report said. The vessels will spend the next five to 10 days fishing in the area, it added.

The fleet’s arrival came after China earlier Sunday extricated a naval frigate that got stranded four days earlier on Hasa-Hasa Shoal (Half Moon Shoal), part of Philippine territory in the Spratlys.

No protest

Chinese fishery administration vessel, Yuzheng 310, is seen in waters off the Fiery Cross Reef in theSouth China Seaon July 15. The vessel will provide protection to a fleet of 30 boats which starts fishing in waters near the reef later on Monday. [Photo/Xinhua]

The Philippines, however, did not lodge a diplomatic protest over the incident, saying the stranding of the vessel in its exclusive economic zone was likely an accident.

“We don’t believe that there were ill-intentions that accompanied the presence of that ship in our [exclusive economic zone],” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Sunday.

“As far as filing a diplomatic protest is concerned, my stance is that we will probably not do that,” Del Rosario said.

But Malacañang said Monday that the Philippines would not call the incident an accident until after its confirmation by a foreign affairs department investigation.

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said the government still had to receive “any reason, why, how that frigate happened to be there.”

The People’s Liberation Army Missile Frigate No. 560 was on a “routine patrol,” China said, when it ran aground on Hasa-Hasa Shoal, 111 kilometers west of Palawan, in the Philippine exclusive economic zone.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila said the frigate was “refloated successfully” before daybreak on Sunday, and Del Rosario said he was informed it was already on its way back to China.

“We wish its crew a safe voyage back to China,” Del Rosario said.

No intention to leave

But Senator Gregorio Honasan, vice chairman of the Senate defense committee, said the incident was likely to happen again, as China apparently had no intention to leave the Spratlys or any other part of the West Philippine Sea where it had territorial claims.

“It would be definitely repeated,” Honasan, speaking in Filipino, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “The report saying their ship ran aground means they have not left the area. That is clear.”

Honasan said it was possible China was bracing for talks on joint exploration with other claimants to territory in the West Philippine Sea.

China is maintaining a constant presence in the area so as not to be left out of the discussions, Honasan said.

China has adamantly refused to bring the territorial disputes in the region to the international level, but has not rejected joint exploration with its rivals, he said.

China’s endgame

“My feeling is that the endgame for China is to partake of the resources in the disputed areas,” Honasan said. “When you are negotiating, you negotiate from a position of strength. You will indicate your maximum position.”

But Honasan said he did not favor bilateral talks with China. “It’s better to bring this issue to a multilateral forum,” he said.

China says it has sovereign rights to all the West Philippine Sea, believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits, including areas close to the coastlines of other countries and hundreds of kilometers from its own landmass.

But Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines also claim parts of the South China Sea.

The Spratlys are one of the biggest island chains in the area.

Potential flash point

The rival claims have long made the West Philippine Sea one of Asia’s potential military flash points, and tensions have escalated over the past year.

The Philippines and Vietnam have complained that China is becoming increasingly aggressive in its actions in the area—such as harassing fishermen—and also through bullying diplomatic tactics.

The Philippines said the latest example of this was at the annual Southeast Asian talks in Cambodia that ended on Friday in failure because of the West Philippine Sea issue.

The Philippines had wanted its fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to refer in a joint statement to a standoff last month with China over Panatag Shoal.

But Cambodia, the summit’s host and China’s ally, blocked the move.

Philippine Daily Inquirer

Chinese ships eye ‘bumper harvest’ in Spratlys

MANILA, Philippines – A large Chinese fleet started fishing at Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed waters of the Spratly Islands Monday night, amid a warning from the Philippines to steer clear of the country’s territory.

>> Philippines warns Chinese fishermen to stay away

Chinese state news agency Xinhua said 30 fishing vessels, one of the largest fleet deployed by Hainan province, have started casting their nets in waters near the reef, which it is calling Yongshu Reef.

“We pray for a bumper harvest tonight,” one fisherman told Xinhua.

The ships, which are being escorted by Chinese Fisheries Law Enforcement Command vessel Yuzheng-310, arrived in the area around 3:56 p.m. Sunday and will stay for up to 10 to fish.

“Dark clouds were still lingering over the reef on Monday, but the fishermen hoped for the best,” Xinhua reported.

The ships include a 3,000-tonne replenishment ship and 29 other large boats.

Deadly naval battle

Waters near the reef where the ships dropped anchor was the site of a deadly naval battle between Chinese and Vietnamese forces in 1998.

More than 70 Vietnamese troops were killed while 2 of their ships were sunk and another was heavily damaged in the skirmish.

It resulted in China gaining control of the nearby Johnson South Reef, which the Philippines calls Mabini Reef.

Dr. Richard Cronin, senior associate and director of the Henry Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program, told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that the deadly outcome of the naval battle was the reason why the Philippine Navy decided to avoid a confrontation with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy when the latter occupied Mischief Reef in 1994.

In reponse to the arrival of the Chinese fishing fleet, Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Monday said China should ensure that its ships will stay clear of the Philippines’ 200-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ), as set by international law.

Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said Philippine Coast Guard boats have been deployed to make sure that the Chinese ships do not enter Philippine territory.

“If these (ships) are going to our EEZ, we will file a protest because this is our EEZ and it is only the Philippines (that has) the sovereign right to explore, exploit and manage the resources in that area,” he told media.

“We require China to respect the sovereign rights of the Philippines,” he said.

China has yet to comment on the DFA’s warnings, even as it announced Monday that its deep-sea manned submersible, the Jiaolong, is also set to  be deployed to the Spratlys next year for a survey mission to map the disputed area’s basin.

China is claiming ownership of the entire West Philippine Sea — which is believed to hold large oil and gas reserves — including areas close to the coastlines of other countries and hundreds of kilometers from its own landmass. – with a report from Agence France-Presse

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