Photos show China blocking access to Panatag Shoal

Paterno Esmaquel II
Photos show China blocking access to Panatag Shoal
(UPDATED) One of the photos is taken on October 29, a week after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made a 4-day state visit to China

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Newly-released photos suggest that China is still blocking Filipino fishermen’s access to Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), a think tank said Wednesday, November 2.

One of the photos was taken on October 29, a week after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made a state visit to China from October 18 to 21. 

In an email update on Wednesday, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said, “Despite earlier reports, it appears that Filipino fishermen are still not fishing inside Scarborough Shoal.”

“New imagery from October 29 showed a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel anchored just inside the mouth of the lagoon, where it has been for most of the period since China seized the shoal in 2012, apparently blocking access. At least 17 Philippine fishing vessels were present along the exterior of Scarborough’s reef,” the AMTI of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report.

“This corroborates reports that Filipino fishermen fished ‘just outside Scarborough’s lagoon’ over the last week. There were also two Chinese civilian ships in the vicinity. According to the Philippine Navy, 3 other CCG vessels continue to patrol near Scarborough,” the AMTI added.

This comes after one of Duterte’s senior aides, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr, said the Philippines and China have reached a “friendly” understanding over the right to fish in Panatag Shoal. 

For the AMTI, this “friendly” understanding “was only for Chinese authorities to relax the stricter blockade of the reef that they put in place” after Manila, on July 12, won a historic case against Beijing over the West Philippine Sea.

‘More difficult’ to approach Panatag

The think tank said this “would be a return to the status quo that has existed for much of the last 4 years,” not the status quo before the Panatag Shoal standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels in April 2012. 

The standoff fueled tensions between Manila and Beijing, forcing the Philippines to file an arbitration case against China in January 2013. (READ: TIMELINE: The Philippines-China maritime dispute)

Before this, the AMTI said, Filipino fishermen “regularly entered” Panatag Shoal.

The group said, “At many points over the last 4 years, Filipino fishermen have been able to approach the outside of the shoal, but always at the forbearance of the CCG.”

The AMTI photos showed that after the July 12 ruling on the West Philippine Sea, and before Duterte’s Beijing trip, “it was becoming more, not less, difficult” for Filipino fishermen to approach Panatag Shoal.

“In fact, the number of Chinese coast guard and civilian ships around the shoal has increased since at least early September, hitting levels not seen in satellite imagery since early 2014,” the AMTI said.

An image dated September 11, for instance, showed a Chinese government vessel at the mouth of Panatag Shoal and another nearby. At the same time, 4 Chinese non-government vessels also surrounded the shoal in this September 11 photo.

POST-RULING. More Chinese vessels had been spotted in the vicinity of Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) after the Philippines on July 12 won a case against China over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). Photo courtesy of CSIS/AMTI and DigitalGlobe

Five other photos in September depicted similar scenarios.

The AMTI described the September images as “noteworthy because not a single Filipino fishing vessel was visible at the shoal on any of the days involved, lending credence to reports that CCG ships have driven off any ships approaching the shoal.”

Malacañang: ‘No formal agreement’

Malacañang confirmed on Wednesday, November 2, that there is “no formal agreement” between the Philippines and China on the presence of Philippine fishermen in the area outside the shoal.

Asked how the Philippine government can ensure that its fishermen have continued access to the area even without a binding agreement, Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a news briefing: “It’s going by the friendly agreement that has been raised. So we’ll go, we’ll proceed along that lines….According to the present arrangement, they just go and fish.”

Abella stressed that Duterte has “done his part,” which is to pave the way for the fishermen’s return to their traditional fishing grounds, even if they are kept from entering the shoal itself. – Rappler.com

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Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.