By Roy C. Mabasa, Genalyn D. Kabiling
The Philippines was just enforcing maritime laws and upholding the country’s sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) when policemen seized a Chinese fishing boat off Hasa-Hasa (Half Moon) Shoal in the Spratly Islands and detained 11 of its crewmen last Tuesday.
Presidential Communications Operations Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said the move was not meant to provoke China and stir up the territorial dispute. The Philippine National Police (PNP) Maritime Group was merely performing its duty to enforce the country’s environmental protection laws as the Chinese fishermen were caught with hundreds of endangered sea turtles, Coloma said.
In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the Chinese boat, identified as Qiongqionghai 09063, was caught “carrying large number of endangered species” within Philippine territorial waters.
500 endangered turtles
The Chinese boat carried about 500 turtles, several already lifeless, the maritime police patrol report stated. It added that a Filipino boat with crew and 40 turtles was also seized in the same vicinity. Several species of sea turtles are protected under Philippine law.
The captured boats and crew were towed to Puerto Princesa City in Palawan where appropriate charges will be filed against them.
Director General Alan Purisima, chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP), said all the arrested foreigners will be turned over to the Committee on Illegal Entrants to formalize the start of the legal proceedings for allegedly poaching in Philippine waters.
“Relevant authorities in Palawan will address this case in a just, humane and expeditious manner,” the DFA said in the statement issued Wednesday night.
The state-owned Philippine News Agency (PNA) reported that Chinese boat captain Chen Hi Quan of Hainan province, had a meeting with PNP Maritime Group Special Boat Unit head Chief Supt. Osmondo Salibo.
Chinese Foreign Minister spokesman Hua Chunying said in a daily press briefing in Beijing last Wednesday that Chinese Coast Guard vessels have been dispatched and are already at the scene. On the other hand, the Chinese embassy in Manila has lodged representations with the Philippines asking the immediate release of the Chinese boat and its crew.
But Purisima rejected China’s demand and claims, insisting that the Hasa-Hasa Shoal belongs to the Philippines.
“We warn the Philippine side against taking any further provocative actions,” said Hua.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman further reiterated China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands (Chinese name for the Spratlys), including the Banyue Reef (Chinese for Half Moon Shoal), and other adjacent islands.
“That is their assertion. Our assertion is that is ours also, that is within the Philippine territory,” said Purisima.
“That’s why we are patrolling the areas to enforce and protect our maritime resources,” Purisima said.
Chief Supt. Noel Vargas, director of the police’s Maritime Group, denied China claims that his men fired on the Chinese fishing vessel during the operation.
“That is their press statement. I do not know where they got their information,” said Vargas.
“In so far as the PNP side is concerned, we did not fire shots,” he stressed.
Well taken care of
So far, the 11 suspected Chinese poachers are under the custody of the Special Boat Unit of the PNP in Palawan.
Part of the process after arresting foreigners, according to Vargas, is to coordinate with proper government agencies like the Department of Foreign Affairs and Bureau of Immigration.
The arrested foreigners would then be subjected to medical check up and to make sure that they are well taken of.
“They are being treated humanely,” said Vargas.
The United States expressed concern that the Chinese vessel reportedly captured by Philippine authorities “appear to be in engaged in direct harvest of endangered species of sea turtles given the American government works with the international community to combat wildlife trafficking.
“We of course have seen those reports that Philippine police have seized Chinese and Philippine fishing boats carrying illegally harvested sea turtles in the South China Sea, approximately 60 miles off the coast of the Philippines, and detained their crews, US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said during a press briefing in Washington DC Wednesday (Thursday Manila time).
“We urge both sides to work together diplomatically,” Psaki stressed. “Beyond that, I’m not going to weigh in. I would point you to the authorities there.”
The State Department spokesman also expressed the US government’s concern about “dangerous conduct and intimidation” by vessels in the disputed area.
“We call on all parties (to the South China Sea territorial dispute) to conduct themselves in a safe and appropriate manner, exercise restraint, and address competing sovereignty claims peacefully, diplomatically, and in accordance with international law,” she said.
Psaki was reacting to reports by the Vietnamese foreign ministry that claimed Chinese vessels had rammed some of their ships within Vietnam territory in the South China Sea. (With a report from Aaron B. Recuenco)