PH stops protest trip to Scarborough Shoal

ZAMBALES, Philippines (UPDATED) – Philippine President Benigno Aquino told protesters to abort plans to sail Friday, May 18, to a disputed South China Sea shoal also claimed by China, the leader of the group said.

A group of about 20 people, led by outspoken former Philippine Marine officer Nicanor Faeldon and including television crews, was set to depart to Scarborough Shoal from the northern coastal town of Masinloc. 

China claims the shoal along with most of the South China Sea, even up to the coasts of its Asian neighbours, while the Philippines says the shoal is well within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

Cranking up tensions, both countries have had ships posted around the shoal since April 10, after Chinese vessels prevented a Philippine Navy ship from arresting Chinese fishermen.

China and the Philippines have imposed separate fishing bans around the disputed area that came into effect on Wednesday, May 16, moves that were seen by some observers as a face-saving way for both claimants to back away from the row.

Aquino's last-minute telephone call on Friday led to the protesters calling off their trip, protest leader Faeldon told reporters after speaking to the president on his mobile phone.

"I received a call from the president requesting the postponement of this voyage.... I consulted the group and we agreed to concur with the wisdom of the government to postpone it," he added.

For global support

Faeldon said earlier the trip aimed to galvanize global support for Philippine government's efforts to bring a peaceful solution to the maritime stand-off with its giant neighbour.

The foreign department on Thursday, May 17, said it did not want the trip to go ahead but Faeldon initially ignored the call, dismissing fears China would see it as provocative.

But as the group started loading their equipment onto two fishing boats for a planned mid-morning launch Friday, Faeldon said he received a series of telephone calls, one from the coastguard and the last of them from Aquino.

He said the president told him Philippine government representatives were currently in China to negotiate over the maritime dispute.

"He said that he believed the postponement of this activity may do better for the resolution of this dispute," said Faeldon.

Scarborough Shoal sits about 230 kilometres (140 miles) from the Philippines' main island of Luzon. The nearest major Chinese landmass is 1,200 kilometres northwest of the shoal, according to Philippine navy maps.

'Modest' impact

Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan said Thursday he expected "modest" economic fallout from the territorial dispute.

China had imposed stricter quarantine restrictions on key Filipino fruit exports, the Philippine government said, and warned its citizens about travel safety in the Philippines.

Philippine resorts were hit with Chinese tourist cancellations, while a Chinese airline cut flight frequencies to Manila.

Faeldon has served time in prison and was discharged from the Philippine Marines for a 2003 coup attempt, but was granted amnesty last year.

He has in the past called for civil disobedience and greater accountability in the Philippine military. –