Philippines charges 9 Chinese fishermen

Manila's move likely to worsen already fraught ties with Beijing

FILIPINO prosecutors have filed charges against nine Chinese fishermen for alleged poaching in the South China Sea, a move likely to further stoke a territorial dispute with China.

Two other crew members who are minors were ordered released and will be sent back to China.

Charges were also brought against five Filipinos accused of colluding with the Chinese.

The nine Chinese and five Filipino fishermen are charged with poaching more than 500 protected sea turtles. If found guilty, they could be jailed up to 20 years and fined up to US$200,000 (S$250,000).

The offences are bailable, but a separate case of illegal entry may be filed to prevent the Chinese from leaving the Philippines.

Beijing last week demanded that Manila release the fishermen immediately and "stop taking further provocative action" that will harm relations.

At a regular briefing in Beijing yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said China hopes that the Philippines will handle the issue of the Chinese fishermen properly and expeditiously.

Philippine police seized the Chinese-flagged vessel Qiongqionghai 09063 and arrested its 11 crewmen last Tuesday after tailing a Filipino fishing boat they suspected of trafficking endangered marine life. They found 555 green sea turtles, a protected species, on the Chinese ship. More than 300 of the turtles were already dead.

The Chinese were arrested off Half Moon Shoal, a rocky outcrop on the fringes of an island chain known as the Spratlys.

"The area was just 90km away from Philippine soil. How can that be provocative?" Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said on Sunday, adding that the Philippines was "just following the law".

China's vast claims over the Spratlys and another resource- rich island chain, the Paracels, in the South China Sea have already led to tensions with some of its neighbours in South-east Asia.

China angered Vietnam last week after it positioned a giant oil rig in an area claimed by Vietnam. The two sides then claimed their ships had been rammed by the other's near the disputed Paracel islands. China and Vietnam fought a brief border war in 1979.

At the weekend, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung urged his Asean counterparts to protest against what he called China's "serious violation" in deploying the rig. Vietnam had acted with "utmost restraint", he said.

In a declaration at the end of their summit in Myanmar on Sunday, Asean leaders urged all parties to refrain from taking actions that would further escalate tensions in the South China Sea.

They also reiterated a call to work towards an early conclusion of a Code of Conduct to manage disputes in the resource-rich waters without the use of force.

China yesterday said Vietnam's efforts to rope in support from other countries would fail. "The facts prove that Vietnam is trying to rope in other parties and put pressure on China, (but) will not achieve its aims," Ms Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, was quoted by Reuters as saying.

"We hope that Vietnam can see the situation clearly, calmly face up to reality, and stop harassing the Chinese operations."

rdancel@sph.com.sg