Fishermen take a break after returning from a fishing trip in the South China Sea, on the shores of Infanta town, Pangasinan province, northwest of Manila
Fishermen take a break after returning from a fishing trip in the South China Sea, on the shores of Infanta town, Pangasinan province, northwest of Manila, Philippines July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

China is still preventing Filipinos from fishing in the Scarborough Shoal despite a historic ruling by an international tribunal favoring them. Adding to their woes comes a new ruling by China’s Supreme Court which says people caught illegally fishing in “Chinese” waters could be jailed for up to a year. While being concerned about the livelihood of fishermen, the Philippine government and legal experts want them to exercise restraint and stay away from the disputed waters until the issue is sorted out with China through bilateral talks.      

The Philippine government has warned its fishermen to stay away from the disputed waters of South China Sea following a decision issued by the Chinese Supreme Court that people caught illegally fishing in the area will be jailed for up to a year.

Fishermen take a break after returning from a fishing trip in the South China Sea, on the shores of Infanta town, Pangasinan province, northwest of Manila, Philippines July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

The court issued the ruling despite the recent decision by the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in favor of the Philippines. The PCA dismissed China’s massive claim over the South China Sea.

Part of the Tribunal’s ruling was about the Scarborough Shoal being a common fishing ground.

The Tribunal ruled that the Shoal and five other reefs are rocks that generate no entitlements to an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.

The PCA also ruled that China’s action of blocking access to the Shoal was unlawful. In that same ruling, PCA also recognized that the area is a traditional fishing ground for fishermen not only from the Philippines but many nationalities.

Ngayon pinapababa muna ang temperature kasi sariwang sariwa pa iyong decision [ng Tribunal] [We want to let things cool down because the Tribunal’s decision is still fresh],” Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Charles Jose told reporters during the Second Manila Conference on the South China Sea.

China has refused to recognize the decision of the Tribunal.

Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier said the Tribunal’s decision was not legally binding. He insisted that history would show that the disputed water is within the Chinese territory.

Sa side natin maging mahinahon muna [On our part, we should exercise restraint first],” Jose said.

The issue about the fishermen is a priority that should be discussed with China because their livelihoods are affected.

Importante na makabalik iyong ating mga mangingisda sa Scarborough Shoal dahil naaapektuhan ang kanilang kabuhayan [It is important that our fishermen be able to continue fishing at the Scarborough Shoal because their livelihood is affected],” Jose said.

“Isa ito sa mga priority issues na dapat nating i-take up with China when we go into direct talks with them. Isa ito sa dapat maresolba (This is one of the priority issues that we should take up with China when we go in direct talks with them. This has to be resolved),” he added.

Filipino fishermen have been playing cat and mouse with the Chinese coast guards in Scarborough Shoal since 2012 when China blocked access to the shoal.

Last July, days after the Tribunal issued its decision, Chinese coastguard blocked Filipino fishermen from approaching the shoal. Joining the group of fishermen was a news team from local network ABS-CBN.

The Chinese coastguard spotted the group and ordered them to leave immediately.

The Duterte government is being criticized for its soft stance on the territorial dispute.

Duterte’s officials as well as Supreme Court Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza, part of the team that argued its case in The Hague, also advised the country to be cautious and avoid rocking the boat.

President Rodrigo Duterte earlier said he wants to repair the Philippines’ relationship with China which has been damaged during the time of former President Benigno Aquino. The Aquino administration initiated the case against China before the Tribunal.

In his State of the Nation Address (SONA), Duterte said the decision of the PCA is “an important contribution to the ongoing efforts to pursue a peaceful resolution and management of our disputes.”

Jose explained that while the tribunal’s decision is favorable to the Philippines, the situation on the ground is different.

“The reality is that China is there so we must discuss,” Jose said.

The Duterte government’s position agrees with the position of Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio who said that a talk is necessary to discuss the ruling.

“We have now a ruling from an international tribunal to which China has ratified. The tribunal said Scarborough Shoal is a traditional fishing ground of Filipino and Chinese fishermen, So, both can fish there. We have to talk to China to establish protocols so we can fish in the area and definitely we have a right to go there,” said Carpio who is also a member of the Philippine team in The Hague.

If Beijing refuses, Carpio said, the country can and should use the tribunal’s ruling as a leverage.

‘’There are other avenues, like China has applied under the UNCLOS for permit to explore the seabed issued by the International Seabed Authority. The International Seabed Authority can suspend that license of China. We can also go back to the tribunal if China refuses. There are so many ways to put pressure on China if it refuses. We are not totally helpless,” he explained.

He added that the Philippines should also brace for an inter-generational struggle on the issue, noting that China’s leaders, businessmen and even students were taught at an early age that the South China Sea belongs to them.

He also called for strengthening the country’s defense capability not as a means to go to war but as a deterrent.

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