Panelo: No problem if China fishes in Spratlys

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Chinese fishing vessels at Subi Reef on August 12, 2018.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 14) — A Palace official on Monday downplayed the reportedly massive presence of Chinese fishing vessels in the West Philippine Sea.

According to a report by U.S. based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), China controls most of the fishing vessels in the Spratly group of islands, particularly around Subi and Mischief Reefs, two of Beijing's military outposts in the contested area. The CSIS said there were more Chinese ships there in 2018 as compared to 2017.

READ: Think tank flags increase in number of Chinese fishing vessels in Spratlys

It is unclear if the Chinese vessels were actually fishing in the disputed waters, but Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Malacañang sees no problem if they were.

"Kung fisherman lang naman, pareho rin tayo nagpupunta rin tayo sa what they claim to be theirs, pinababayaan tayo mag-fish. Walang problema kung fishing-fishing lang," Panelo said in a Palace press briefing.

However, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in July 2016 that Mischief is part of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This means the Philippines has sovereign rights in these areas, which the government calls West Philippine Sea. The tribunal also said China violated the Philippines' rights when it failed to prevent Chinese-flagged vessels from fishing in Mischief Reef and other areas within the Philippine EEZ.

Meanwhile, the tribunal agreed with the Philippine contention that Chinese-occupied Subi Reef is a low-tide elevation not capable of appropriation by occupation or other means since it does not generate entitlement to a territorial sea, exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. Subi Reef lies around 14 nautical miles from Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island also known as Thitu.

China rejects the arbitral ruling and stands by its sweeping claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

Panelo said Malacañang does not want to speculate if Beijing's fishing vessels were manned by Chinese soldiers, adding that it expects the Department of National Defense to be looking into any possible security threat.

"I'm sure whoever is authorized to oversee that area, e alam nila ang gagawin nila if they feel na may security threat," Panelo said.

The Duterte government has been criticized for its soft stance in the long-standing maritime dispute with China. President Rodrigo Duterte has promised to bring the arbitral ruling up with China within his term, which ends 2022.