Panatag Shoal – also known locally as Bajo de Masinloc and internationally as Scarborough Shoal – was again in the news, after some Filipino fishermen said that the Chinese Coast Guard had seized the catch of the fishermen last month.
It is located about 230 kilometers west of Zambales, a favorite fishing site for fishermen of various nations over the years. In 2012, it became a flashpoint in Philippines-China relations when Filipino troops attempted to apprehend a Chinese vessel fishing in the area and ships of the two nations faced each other for two months, before President Benigno S. Aquino III ordered the withdrawal of the Philippine ships to end the standoff. But the Chinese ships remained — to this day.
It was this incident which prompted the Philippines to file a case in 2014 in the Arbitral Court in The Hague which ruled in 2016 rejecting China’s claims to most of the South China Sea. As for Panatag, the court ruled that it has always been a traditional fishing ground for fishermen from various nations – Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, etc. – and should remain so.
Last Monday, demonstrating Filipino fishermen at the Chinese consulate in Makati held a placard of protest saying, “I can’t fish in our own seas.” Panatag is not Philippine territory but it is within the 300-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) whose resources we have a right to develop and exploit.
However, since Panatag has always been a traditional fishing area for fishermen of many nations, the Arbitral Court ruled that it should remain so.
Against all these points, however, is China’s claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, as defined by a nine-dash loop curving south from China close to Vietnam’s coastline, down to the sea off Malaysia and Borneo, up the western coasts of the various Philippine islands, on to the north, including Taiwan. In China’s view, the South China Sea is Chinese territory.
There have long been fears that China would build Panatag Shoal into an island complete with runways and a military base, like the ones it built in the Paracels near Vietnam and in the Spratlys west of Palawan. Panatag would be its outpost marking the easternmost boundary of the territory China claims.
We have the UNCLOS on our side, along with the Arbitral Court ruling. But as long as China maintains its claim of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, the problem of Panatag and all the other islands in the vast resource-rich area will keep cropping up.
President Duterte, ever the realist, has opted for a policy of cooperation with China, which has already agreed to extend so much assistance to the Philippines in many ways. We can only hope that people of goodwill on both sides will continue to prevail and avoid making Panatag a cause of bloody confrontation.