DFA urges calm amid China threat to fishers

AMID the backdrop of the Second Manila Conference on the South China Sea, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) called for "calm" Wednesday in the face of China's threat to jail "illegal fishermen" it apprehends within territories it claims ownership in the South China Sea. "Sa side natin, maging mahinahon muna (For our side, we must remain calm for now)," DFA Spokesman Charles C. Jose told reporters in a chance interview at a conference called by the department to discuss how to move forward and manage tensions following the Permanent Court of Arbitration's (PCA) July 12 ruling on the suit brought by the Philippines against China.

The ruling says China's so-called "nine-dash line," on which it bases its claim of ownership over almost all the South China Sea, has no legal basis. But China, which did not participate in the proceedings, has also refused to honor the ruling.

On Tuesday, China's Supreme Court said people caught illegally fishing in Chinese waters could be jailed for up to a year.

"Alam naman natin na ino-occupy ng China ang Scarborough Shoal (We know that China occupies Scarborough Shoal)," Mr. Jose pointed out. "Hintayin muna na mabigyan linaw kung paano makakabalik ang mga mangingisda natin sa Scarborough Shoal (Let us wait for clarification on how our fishermen can return to Scarborough Shoal)."

"Kaya nga patuloy ang panawagan natin sa lahat ng mga parties na tumulong na makapag-promote ng peace, security and stability (Which is why we continue to call on all parties to help promote peace, security and stability)," he added.

Scarborough, also known as Bajo de Masinloc, has been a traditional fishing ground for fishermen from Luzon. However, the PCA ruling did not say who owns Scarborough, indicating that the waters in the area were open to use by fishermen from the various claimant countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam.

WORSE VIOLATION

But professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines' Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said China would be committing an even worse violation of international law if it arrests and imprisons Filipino fishermen for entering Scarborough Shoal.

Mr. Batongbacal said the PCA ruling made it clear that Scarborough is open to fishing, thus, should China arrest Filipinos there, the Philippines can file another case, this time before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea or ITLOS, "which provides for a mechanism [for the] prompt release of the fishermen and the vessels that are detained by states."

He also pointed out that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS -- as well as general humanitarian principles -- prohibits states from detaining fishermen and fishing vessels. "So if they do that the law is much stronger on our side and the procedure is clearer in our favor," he said, since the arrest of Filipinos by China could be considered a provocative act.

Mr. Batongbacal also said the PCA ruling gave the Philippines the right to demand that China pull out of Mischief Reef, where it has built an operating runway, because, unlike other formations where China has built artificial islands, it falls within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

Thus, he said: "we have the right to ask China to leave to depart from Mischief Reef."

Mr. Jose stressed that the government is waiting for tensions to cool down before seeking talks with China, with efforts to ensure Filipino fishermen can return to Scarborough taking precedence over the construction of artificial islands by China.

The DFA spokesman also said that, notwithstanding Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto R. Yasay, Jr.'s assertion that the PCA ruling is a matter for China and the Philippines to resolve, the issue also involves other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations because the decision of The Hague tribunal could be the basis of stability in the region and thus "assume[s] greater significance, greater dimension."

YASAY ABSENT

Wednesday's conference was the second on the South China Sea organized by Manila since 2011 and gathers local and international experts on maritime disputes.

However, Mr. Yasay, who was supposed to deliver the opening remarks, did not show up. Undersecretary for Policy Enrique A. Manalo, who represented Mr. Yasay, said the Secretary had to attend an "urgent matter."

In his remarks, Mr. Manalo reiterated that the PCA ruling is "legally binding" and "vindicated" the Philippines' claims even as he stressed the country will opt to push for a diplomatic solution to the matter.

He also called on ASEAN members and China to abide by the declaration of conduct for peace and stability in the region, respect freedom of navigation and overflights, and not allow provocative actions in the area.

Source: Business World Online