Avoid disputed area, Manila tells fishermen

MANILA • The Philippines told its fishermen to steer clear of a fishing ground in the disputed South China Sea to avoid harassment from the Chinese authorities.

The warning came despite a recent ruling by a UN-backed tribunal in favour of the Philippines, as it dismissed China's territorial claims to large swathes of the waters.

Beijing angrily rejected the ruling and, on Tuesday, it announced penalties for "illegal" fishing in its waters, including the disputed areas.

"We are aware that China is occupying Scarborough Shoal, so let us wait for clarity on how our fishermen can return there without being subjected to harassment any more," Manila's foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose told reporters yesterday.

Mr Jose said that while the tribunal ruling was clear, the "reality on the ground" was different.

"The reality is that China is there so we must discuss this," he said.

Asked if this meant Filipino fishermen should avoid the shoal for now, Mr Jose said: "This is for the safety of everyone."

Manila's position is likely to anger critics of President Rodrigo Duterte's new government, which has been accused of taking a soft line with Beijing.

The question of who has the right to fish in the disputed South China Sea has been a major bone of contention between Beijing and Manila, which brought the case to the arbitration tribunal at The Hague.

Manila lodged the case under its previous government in 2013, saying that after 17 years of negotiations with Beijing it had exhausted all political and diplomatic avenues to settle the dispute.

In 2012, China took control of the Scarborough Shoal, 230km from the main Philippine island of Luzon, after a stand-off with the country's navy. It has since driven away Filipino fishermen attempting to fish in the area.

Mr Duterte has said he wants to repair relations with China that were battered during the term of his predecessor Benigno Aquino.

Mr Duterte, who assumed the presidency on June 30, said he would send former president Fidel Ramos to Beijing as an envoy to negotiate on the issue.

"This is one of the priority issues that we must take up when we go into direct talks with China," Mr Jose said yesterday.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2016, with the headline 'Avoid disputed area, Manila tells fishermen'. Print Edition | Subscribe