Chinese coast guard ships 'still at disputed shoal'

MANILA • Chinese coast guard vessels are still patrolling the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea but are not stopping Filipinos from fishing there, a Philippine defence spokesman said yesterday.

The information - from fishermen who have just returned from the shoal - came despite earlier Philippine government statements that the Chinese had left the outcrop they seized in 2012.

A spokesman for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had said that there were no longer signs of Chinese ships at the shoal, after Mr Duterte visited China to repair frayed relations.

However, Defence Department spokesman Arsenio Andolong said fishermen who visited the shoal last Saturday saw Chinese coast guard ships there.

"Filipino fishermen who have been to Bajo de Masinloc (the local name for Scarborough Shoal) say that they have observed an undetermined number of Chinese white ships in the area but (the Filipinos) were not subjected to any harassment by these vessels and they were able to fish in peace," he said in a statement yesterday.

Newspaper reports in the Philippines yesterday also said fishermen from the northern province of Pangasinan were able to fish at Scarborough Shoal, with the Chinese watching but not interfering.

China took control of Scarborough Shoal, 230km west of the main Philippine island of Luzon, in 2012. It drove Filipino fishermen away from the rich fishing grounds, sometimes using water cannon.

In a case brought by then President Benigno Aquino, the Philippines won a resounding victory over China at an international tribunal earlier this year.

In a judgment that infuriated Beijing, the tribunal ruled in July that there was no basis for China's claims to most of the South China Sea - where several nations have competing partial claims.

However, Mr Aquino's successor, President Duterte, played down this victory in a visit to China earlier this month, putting territorial disputes on the back-burner and focusing instead on Chinese aid.

Chinese President Xi Jinping told Mr Duterte there was no reason for hostility and difficult topics "could be shelved temporarily".

Chinese occupation of the shoal has been a sore point in relations, with Filipino fishermen frequently complaining that Chinese ships drive them away from their fishing grounds.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2016, with the headline 'Chinese coast guard ships 'still at disputed shoal''. Print Edition | Subscribe