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China still has control over Panatag Shoal, think tank says

Latest satellite image shows China guarding the shoal’s mouth, barring inside access by Filipino fishermen

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By MB Online

scarborough shoal

While Malacañang insisted no one owns the disputed Panatag Shoal or Scarborough Shoal, where Filipino fishermen recently regained traditional fishing rights, China is clearly not letting go of what it calls Huangyan Island.

The latest satellite image of the shoal from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) dated October 29 showed a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel—a red dot labeled Chinese government vessel—moored inside the mouth of the lagoon.

The think tank, of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted the vessel had been anchored there “for most of the period since China seized the shoal in 2012, apparently blocking access.”

In contrast, as many as 17 Philippine fishing boats represented by yellow dots were detected at the shoal’s periphery, with two Chinese civilian vessels represented by orange dots also seen outside.

“This corroborates reports that Filipino fishermen fished ‘just outside Scarborough’s lagoon’ over the last week,” the U.S.-based think tank noted, also quoting the Philippine Navy’s statement that three other China Coast Guard vessels continue to patrol near the shoal.

October 29, Saturday, was when media reports surfaced that Filipino fishermen were able to fish again at the shoal. Six days ago, President Duterte—fresh from his four-day state visit to China—said, “We’ll just wait for a few more days. We may be able to return to Scarborough Shoal.”

Status quo?

China’s foreign ministry, on October 31, reiterated there is no change in the jurisdiction status: “The Chinese side has always been exercising normal jurisdiction over Huangyan Dao [Scarborough Shoal]. The situation there is and will remain unchanged.”

Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying underscored the Philippines–China rapprochement since President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit: “China has taken into account the situation and made some arrangements on issues of Duterte’s interest for the good of the two countries’ friendship.”

For AMTI, the gesture proved China only “relaxed the stricter blockade of the reef” it enforced following the July 12 arbitral ruling by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, which invalidated China’s claims over the shoal and the Spratlys with its nine-dash line and declared its shoal blockade illegal.

It said the situation only returned to the status quo since 2012 and not before the Chinese occupation, when Filipinos can regularly enter the shoal to fish.

The think tank also showed satellite images of the shoal in November 2015, and May and September 2016, during which a solitary CCG vessel has consistently guarded the mouth of the reef.

It especially highlighted the September images, which indicate the absence of any Filipino fishing vessel, “lending credence to reports that CCG ships have driven off any ships approaching the shoal.”

During that time, satellite images also noted a rise in the number of China’s coast guard and civilian vessels, “hitting levels not seen in satellite imagery since early 2014.”

Clam digging concerns

AMTI also raised alarm over the devastation inside the shoal made by Chinese poachers.

It presented a January 2015 imagery that detected dozens of Chinese boats allegedly involved in clam digging, which have destroyed “roughly half of the reef surface” around the shoal, as shown in images of wide semi-circular scars the vessels left behind.

Duterte, in his announcement of a possible reinstatement of fishing rights by Filipinos, cautioned the fishermen to avoid the lagoon itself as a conservation measure to protect the corals and the breeding grounds of fish. But he said it’s up to the Chinese side if they will do the same.

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