Fishermen from the Philippine island of Palawan have accused China of seizing nearby Quirino, also known as Jackson Atoll. The area is a popular fishing ground for Filipinos, but fishermen suddenly found themselves held off by a squadron of Chinese ships.
“Gray and white Chinese vessels have not left the atoll, which Filipino fishermen also call Jackson Five, because of the existence of five lagoons in the area,” reports the Philippine Star.
“The Chinese are claiming almost the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. Manila is contesting Beijing’s claim before an international arbitral court based in The Hague,” the report continues.
Several fishermen told the Star they were chased away by Chinese ships, identified by Philippine air patrols as Chinese coast guard vessels. “We can’t enter the area anymore,” complained one fishing operator.
“This is very alarming, Quirino is on our path when we travel from Palawan to Pagasa. It is halfway and we normally stop there to rest,” Eugenio Bito-onon Jr., the mayor of nearby Pagasa Island in the Spratly chain, told Reuters.
“I feel something different. The Chinese are trying to choke us by putting an imaginary checkpoint there. It is a clear violation of our right to travel, impeding freedom of navigation,” Bito-onon Jr. continued.
The Star notes that last month, China performed a similar operation at another Filipino fishign ground, the Hasa-Hasa or Half-Moon shoal. Another shoal was conquered in 2012, after the Philippine Navy tried to arrest Chinese poachers, but was run off by Chinese ships. The Chinese have maintained a presence in the area ever since.
Reuters reports the Chinese Foreign Ministry claims its operation in Quirino is only temporary, and in fact its ships have already departed the area, after helping to tow a grounded, abandoned foreign vessel.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman claimed Filipino fishing boats were “urged to leave” the area due to concerns about “safety of navigation and of work conditions.”
The Diplomat relates the spokesman’s assertions that the Chinese boats sent to the area were salvage vessels, not Chinese Navy or Coast Guard forces. However, the Foreign Ministry also repeated its claim that the atoll, along with all of the Spratly islands, were under China’s “indisputable sovereignty,” leading The Diplomat to speculate the incident might have been contrived by China to demonstrate its dominance over the area.
Mayor Bito-onon Jr. told the Associated Press he personally observed Chinese ships at Jackson Atoll on two consecutive days last week, while flying a plane over the area.
On Wednesday, the Philippine Foreign Ministry announced “there are no more sightings of Chinese vessels in the area as of today,” so the “theory about occupation may not be accurate.”