A Chinese vessel last week rammed a Philippine fishing boat north of the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), killing a Filipino fisherman and leaving four others missing.
Executive Director Benito Ramos of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) on Sunday said the Chinese vessel might have intentionally hit the fishing boat AXL John on Wednesday, but the vessel did nothing to help the fishermen.
“They did not [help],” Ramos said. “That’s why it’s suspicious. If it was accidental, then they should have helped.”
The AXL John may have been the first casualty in the dispute between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal. Manila refers to the area as Panatag Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc.
The state-owned China News Agency (CNA) reported on Saturday that a Chinese official had ordered navy ships to target “Filipino vessels that hang around” Scarborough Shoal “and don’t leave.”
The order of Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo, director of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) Information Expert Committee, came as an answer to President Benigno Aquino’s statement on Wednesday that he would order Philippine vessels back to the shoal if air surveillance found China still had vessels there.
Vessels from China and the Philippines faced off at the shoal, which both countries claim, for more than two months until June 15 after an agreement had been reached for a withdrawal, with bad weather as reason for calls to vessels to return home.
Expecting that China would keep its word, Mr. Aquino ordered a Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources survey ship home on the night of June 15.
But China withdrew only some fishing boats from the shoal’s lagoon, refusing to call home seven government vessels that had been stationed outside the lagoon to assert Chinese sovereignty over the area. Beijing refers to the shoal as Huangyan Island.
The NDRRMC’s Ramos said the fishing boat set off from the coastal town of Bolinao in Pangasinan province on Monday and was reported to have sunk two days later.
“Of the eight fishermen aboard, four were plucked out of sea only yesterday (Saturday), but one of them died in a hospital,” Ramos said. “Four more are still missing.”
Bolinao Mayor Alfonso Celeste said a telephone interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer that Christopher Carbonel, 32, a fisherman from the island village of Dewey in Bolinao, died Sunday morning at Gabriela Silang General Hospital in Vigan City, where he and three other fishermen were taken.
Celeste said another fisherman, Herman Balmores, was in critical condition.
The two other fishermen in the hospital were Edimio Balmores and Celino Damian.
Fishermen Fred Celino, Arnold Garcia, Domy de los Santos and Amante Resonable remained missing four days after the Chinese vessel hit their boat, which was anchored at an artificial reef off Bolinao.
Police could not say how far the artificial reef was from the Bolinao shore, as they had yet to talk with the survivors.
Police Officer 2 Antonio Naungayan said the survivors might have clung to debris from their boat and were carried by currents to the Ilocos Sur area.
Sigfred Duquing, an official with the provincial disaster council of Ilocos Sur, said two fishermen from Magsingal town on Saturday saw the Pangasinan fishermen adrift and rescued them.
Bolinao police said the survivors could not identify the vessel that hit their boat, but Melchito Castro, director of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD), said the survivors reported to the boat owner, Jonalyn Honrado, that they believed it was a Chinese vessel that hit their boat.
“We don’t know what kind of vessel it was, if it came from China,” Castro said. “They just said it was a Chinese vessel.”
Castro said investigators were having difficulty establishing the vessel’s identity because Honrado was not cooperating with them.
He said authorities were searching the waters off Bolinao for the missing fishermen.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) had no immediate comment. “We will have to verify the report first,” said DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez.
The Chinese Embassy said it was not aware of the incident. “I only heard it from you,” said the embassy’s spokesperson, Zhang Hua, who asked the Inquirer for more information.
Board and search
The CNS report quoted Yin as saying Chinese naval troops should board and search Philippine government ships and private fishing vessels.
He said this was already being done by the Philippines on Chinese fishing ships.
Yin said the “Philippines has not yet returned 24 Chinese fishing boats it is holding,” referring to Chinese boats intercepted in Philippine territory in October last year.
Yin, described by CNS as a military expert, said Chinese troops “must try to maintain restraint, not force, not hurt people” when going after Philippine ships found in waters near Scarborough Shoal.
But he told the Communist Party publication People’s Daily on Thursday that China’s Navy would not hesitate to use deadly force against its enemies.
“Our Navy has the absolute ability and the absolute confidence to use arms to defend our country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and maritime rights,” Yin said. “We’re just waiting for the order.”
There was no word from Malacañang about China’s latest action in the West Philippine Sea, but the Palace had ordered the new Philippine ambassador to China to find a peaceful solution the Scarborough Shoal dispute as China tightened its grip on contested territories in the sea.
Sonia Brady, 70, has cleared the Commission on Appointments and taken her oath before President Aquino. China has accepted Brady’s nomination, but there is no information yet from the DFA about her departure for Beijing.
Brady was the country’s ambassador to China from 2006 to 2010. She is returning to Beijing amid the Scarborough Shoal dispute and China’s increasing aggressiveness in claiming territory in the West Philippine Sea.
Brady’s marching orders came two days after China reasserted its dominance in the West Philippine Sea by demanding that Vietnam “correct” a new maritime law that claimed sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands.
Beijing’s disputing the new Vietnamese law, which had been in the works for years, is the latest example of China’s determination to tell its Asian neighbors that the West Philippine Sea is its preserve.
To reinforce its claims, China also announced on Thursday that it had raised the level of government on three island groups in the sea: the Spratlys, the Paracels and the Macclesfield Bank, known in Chinese as the Nansha, Xisha and Zhongsha islands.
The Chinese State Council issued a statement placing the three groups of islands and their surrounding waters under the city of Sansha as a prefectural-level administration rather than a lower county-level one.
Xinhua, the state-run news agency, quoted a Ministry of Civil Affairs spokesperson as saying that the new arrangement would “further strengthen China’s administration and development” of the three island groups.
China and Vietnam are disputing sovereignty over the Paracels and parts of the Spratlys.
The Philippines claims parts of the Spratlys and Macclesfield Bank, a huge group of reefs and shoals in the middle of the West Philippine Sea. It is the largest atoll in the world, covering an area of 6,500 square kilometers and is surrounded by excellent fishing waters.
The Philippines administers Macclesfield Bank through the provincial government of Zambales.
As of Sunday, however, Malacañang had nothing to say about China’s move to place Macclesfield Bank under provincial-level administration.
The DFA, too, has not commented on the latest Chinese challenge to the Philippines’ sovereignty over the resource-rich atoll.
But the department said it was confident Brady would use all her diplomatic skills to find a temporary solution to the Scarborough Shoal dispute. With reports from Jerry E. Esplanada; Gabriel Cardinoza and Leoncio Balbin Jr., Inquirer Northern Luzon; and AFP