China's harassment of Philippine fishermen in disputed South China Sea eases

Fishermen are pictured in Masinloc, Zambales in the Philippines, on April 22, 2015.
Fishermen are pictured in Masinloc, Zambales in the Philippines, on April 22, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (Bloomberg) - Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea have been plying their trade without being harassed by the Chinese coast guard for a month, officials said, in what could be an early sign of easing tensions under President-elect Rodrigo Duterte, who is due to be sworn in on June 30.

The authorities have not received any complaints from local fishermen for weeks about the Chinese interfering with their catch near the disputed Scarborough Shoal , Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources director Asis Perez said by telephone on Tuesday.

"That should be the norm, our fishermen shouldn't be harassed and hosed by China because that area is ours," he said.

Filipino fishermen have often played cat-and-mouse with Chinese coast guards stationed at Scarborough, a chain of reefs and rocks about 240km from the Philippine province of Zambales that China seized from the Philippines in 2012. China has become more assertive in recent years in pressing its claims to more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea, a rich fishing ground and one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, which is also an artery for China's energy supplies from the Middle East.

"The easing level of harassment by the Chinese coast guard is a far cry from when Scarborough Shoal was virtually off- limits to our fishermen," Congressman Ace Acedillo, a former air force pilot, said by telephone. "This could be in anticipation of the new administration and will pave the way for opening the lines of communication between the two countries."

Since his victory in the May 9 presidential election, Mr Duterte has adopted a more conciliatory tone on the dispute with China than President Benigno Aquino, who brought China before an international arbitration tribunal and strengthened the Philippine alliance with the US to deter China's military expansion in the area.

Mr Duterte told President Barack Obama that while he supports the alliance with the US, he would consider breaking ranks with Washington and entering bilateral talks with China to resolve the dispute, GMA News Online reported.

"We should always balance our interest with the interests of our regional neighbors and the other superpower which is the US," Mr Acedillo said. "While an independent foreign policy is paramount, we should also accept the fact that we don't exist in a vacuum."

Mr Duterte asked Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to allow local fishermen near the shoal, when the two met on May 16, Mr Duterte told reporters at the weekend.

"If you will disallow troll fishing, commercial fishing, I would understand. But those bancas - don't crush them - because the Filipino also needs to eat."

The last harassment incident happened on April 15, when stones were hurled against Filipino fishermen near the shoal. A month earlier the Chinese coast guard used water cannons to drive away local fishermen, Mr Perez said.

Last week, a fisherman who came from the shoal reported that the Chinese did not interfere with any of the 20 Filipino fishing boats there, Mr Perez said, adding that the fisheries bureau used to receive reports of harassment at least once a week.

Filipino crew members of a fishing boat that returned from a week-long trip to Scarborough on Sunday said Chinese patrols saw them get near the shoal but didn't drive them away, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported on Tuesday.

New Chinese patrol ships no longer carried firearms, the Inquirer reported, citing Filipino boat captain Aniceto Achina.

"Instead of confronting us, they just waved at us, so we went on to fish day after day without worrying about being attacked," he told the newspaper.