By Marielle Lucenio
The Philippines on Wednesday hailed Washington’s commitment to help defend Manila’s South China Sea claims, while it denied assertions by local fishermen that Chinese boats were preventing them from fishing in Philippine waters five years after a landmark court ruling.
A July 2016 verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and against China over Beijing’s expansive claims in the contested waterway.
“[W]e welcome the United States’ open support for the 2016 Arbitral Award,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said after he and his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met virtually together with America’s top diplomat.
“It is binding international law and the most authoritative application of UNCLOS on the maritime entitlements of features in the South China Sea. As such, it contributes to the rules-based order in ASEAN and benefits all the countries that use the vital artery that is the South China Sea,” he said in a statement, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Wednesday’s talks marked the first bilateral meeting with ASEAN at the foreign ministerial level for U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Biden administration.
“The Secretary underscored the United States’ rejection of the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea and reiterated that the United States stands with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC coercion,” State Department Spokesman Ned Price said in a readout afterward.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – which are all ASEAN members – and Taiwan.
On Monday, the fifth anniversary of the arbitral court’s ruling, China’s foreign ministry dismissed it as “nothing more than a piece of waste paper.”
That same day, Blinken came out with a statement to say that Washington, under the 70-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty with Manila, would help defend its longtime Southeast Asian ally if the Philippines came under attack in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Filipino fishermen are alleging that the Rodrigo Duterte administration has not helped them to assert their rights to fish in and around Scarborough Shoal, a reef located in a prime fishing ground in the waterway.
The shoal was part of a territorial dispute that led a previous Philippine administration to lodge an unprecedented lawsuit before the court in 2013 that challenged China’s vast claims to the sea region. Both Manila and Beijing claim the reef as their own. Scarborough Shoal is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
On Wednesday, Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque rejected allegations by fishermen who say that Chinese coast-guard ships have been harassing or preventing Filipino fishing boats from venturing near Scarborough Shoal. China seized the reef in 2012, which led to the Philippines filing the lawsuit the next year.
On July 12, 2016, the arbitration court ruled in Manila’s favor, declaring its sovereign rights to the EEZ as valid over Beijing’s historical claims.
Roque on Wednesday invited the mayor of Masinloc, a northern Philippine fishing town that faces the South China Sea, to attend his video-call with reporters to back his claim that Filipino fishermen have not been blocked from accessing waters around the shoal.
“This is what the leadership there says, and even the boat operators – they are not prevented from fishing in Scarborough, because that is part of the decision of the tribunal,” Roque told reporters.
“So, I really do not know what they are saying that fishermen are being stopped.”
Neither the Philippine Coast Guard nor Masinloc officials knew of any fishermen who had been harassed by Chinese ships, Roque said.
“Do not worry, when it comes to Scarborough, I don’t think that the Chinese will dare meddle with the likes of Mayor Senyang Lim,” he said, using Masinloc mayor Arsenia Lim’s nickname.
Lim alleged that recent international media reports that Chinese ships were harassing or hindering Filipino fishing boats were old stories. She said fishermen had told her their catch from Scarborough Shoal’s waters had been bountiful.
“We hope that they will stop discrediting us, and the national government is also supporting our fishermen,” Lim told reporters.
“If you go to Masinloc, you will see that they are not being bothered or being stopped.”
‘Our national sovereignty’
BenarNews was among international media outlets that visited Masinloc and talked to the fishermen in the days leading up to the fifth anniversary of the international arbitral ruling.
In spite of the verdict, Scarborough Shoal has remained inaccessible to Filipino fishermen since 2012, they said.
President Duterte’s government “has completely turned its back on our national sovereignty,” Pamalakaya, a fishermen’s group, told BenarNews in response to Roque’s statement.
On Wednesday, a BBC News producer sent Roque a text message as the government spokesman was holding the press briefing, and told him that they were recently with fishermen from Masinloc who were blocked from entering the shoal.
BenarNews also sent Roque a message asking him if the Chinese were still in the area.
He replied: “They have ships there, I believe.”
The fishermen were scathing about Roque, who had represented them in his earlier career as a lawyer.
“Our own government’s cowardice and submission to China will not stop us from asserting what is rightfully ours,” Pamalakaya head Fernando Hicap told BenarNews.
“We no longer expect help from the current administration of Duterte. We will fight for our right to fish in our territory.”