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ASEAN fires warning shot across China's bows
by Staff Writers
Naypyidaw, Myanmar (AFP) May 12, 2014

Philippines charges Chinese fishermen despite warning
Puerto Princesa, Philippines (AFP) May 12, 2014 - Philippine prosecutors on Monday filed environmental crime charges against nine Chinese fishermen arrested in disputed South China Sea waters, despite Beijing's warning of a dire effect on relations.

The court case is the latest step in a simmering dispute between the neighbours in the strategically important South China Sea, which is home to key shipping lanes and is believed to harbour vast oil and gas reserves.

Prosecutor Allan Ross Rodriguez told AFP the fishermen were charged with violating laws against poaching and catching protected species after they were allegedly caught with a huge haul of sea turtles -- a protected species -- on their boat.

The men, who were arrested last week when Filipino police seized their vessel, could face up to 20 years in prison and be hit with large fines if convicted, he added.

"It is clear -- there was a fishing vessel, Chinese fishermen, a catch of sea turtles," Rodriguez said.

The court is expected to summon the fishermen to enter a plea within 10 days, he added, with bail set at 70,000 pesos ($1,570) per defendant.

Police seized the Chinese-flagged vessel and detained its 11 crew members last week off the disputed Half Moon Shoal, 111 kilometres (60 nautical miles) west of Palawan, the most westerly island in the Philippines.

Two crew members were later found to be minors and will not face charges, the Philippine foreign department said.

Filipino police said they found a huge haul of hundreds of sea turtles on board the 15-tonne vessel, many of them already dead.

If found guilty of collecting "rare, threatened or endangered" species -- the most serious charge levelled against the fishermen -- they could face up to 20 years in prison and large fines.

Poaching, meanwhile, is punishable by fines of up to $200,000.

The surviving turtles were released in a Palawan bay on Saturday, local authorities said.

China's claim to nearly all of the South China Sea has strained its ties with Southeast Asian countries.

China has demanded that the Philippines free the fishermen immediately, saying it has "undisputable sovereignty" over the shoal and urging Manila to "stop taking further provocative action" that would harm relations.

On Monday, Beijing's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular media briefing: "We have already expressed China's position and demands to the Philippines many times.

"We hope the two sides can properly handle this issue as quicky as possible."

Last week Vietnam accused China of ramming its ships in an encounter near another disputed territory in the South China Sea.

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes both Vietnam and the Philippines, have expressed "serious concern" at the maritime disputes.

China's extensive claims also overlap those of ASEAN members Brunei and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan's.

The Philippines in March filed a formal plea to the United Nations challenging Beijing's claims, in defiance of Chinese warnings that it would seriously damage their already frayed relations.

Beijing has rejected UN arbitration and urged Manila to settle the dispute through bilateral talks instead.

Southeast Asian leaders have expressed "serious concern" over worsening territorial disputes in the South China Sea, presenting a rare united front against an increasingly assertive Beijing.

Vietnam and the Philippines led a successful push for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to deliver a thinly veiled rebuke to China over the standoff in waters home to key shipping lanes and thought to contain huge energy reserves.

But a defiant Beijing said Hanoi's efforts to enlist the support of its neighbours in the row were "doomed to fail".

The 10-nation ASEAN, in a statement released on Monday after a summit on Sunday, called for a peaceful resolution to the maritime rows, which flared up this month after China moved an oil drilling rig into waters also claimed by Hanoi.

"We expressed serious concerns over the ongoing developments in the South China Sea," said the joint statement from the summit in Myanmar, without explicitly pointing the finger at Beijing.

ASEAN called on all parties involved to "exercise self-restraint, not to resort to threat(s) or use of force, and to resolve disputes by peaceful means in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law".

Observers said the statement marked a change of tone by the regional bloc, many of whose members -- including Myanmar -- have close economic and political ties with China and have traditionally avoided confrontation with the Asian heavyweight.

In 2012 China's ally Cambodia caused consternation when it was ASEAN head by refusing to take Beijing to task over its assertive maritime stance.

"This is a far cry from when Cambodia was ASEAN chair," said Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

The statement "represents a slight tightening of ASEAN's position", he said, adding it suggests a rare level of "consensus" on the vexed sea rights issue.

Under Brunei's chairmanship last year, China avoided a public rebuke from ASEAN at a major summit after offering an olive branch by calling for peace in the flashpoint region.

Beijing struck a less conciliatory tone on Monday, insisting that the contested Paracel Islands, located near the controversial oil rig, were its "inherent territory".

"The facts show that Vietnam's efforts to rope others into pressuring China are doomed to fail," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing.

"We hope that the Vietnamese side will see the situation clearly, calmly face the facts and stop its disruptions of Chinese operations," she said.

- Balancing act -

Prominent Vietnamese political commentator Nguyen Quang A described the ASEAN declaration as a "big positive" for his country.

Vietnam lobbied energetically at the latest meeting in Myanmar for a strong statement on the maritime issue from its neighbours.

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung slammed Beijing's oil rig move as "extremely dangerous" and accused Chinese vessels of ramming Vietnamese ships in the disputed waters.

"This is the first time China brazenly brings and installs its drilling rig deep into the continental shelf and exclusive economic zone of an ASEAN country, which gravely violates the international law," he said, according to an official transcript of his speech.

The spat triggered large anti-China protests in Vietnam at the weekend that appeared to have the tacit blessing of the authoritarian communist regime in Hanoi, which usually limits expression of public discontent.

The demonstrations received unprecedented coverage in Vietnam's tightly controlled state media on Monday.

Analyst Quang A said more rallies were likely unless Beijing removes the drilling rig.

"Our fate is that we are situated here, with a big neighbour who always wants expansion," he said.

China and Vietnam fought a brief border war in 1979 and the pair frequently trade diplomatic barbs over oil exploration, fishing rights and the contested Spratly and Paracel Islands.

China asserts ownership over almost all of the South China Sea, which is also claimed in part by ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia as well as Taiwan.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino told reporters that "many leaders" at the summit had voiced concern about the South China Sea spats, which he said were a "cause for worry and concern by all parties".

Philippine prosecutors said Monday they would charge nine Chinese fishermen arrested in separate disputed waters with environmental crimes, despite Beijing's warning of a dire effect on relations.


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Sea row dominates Southeast Asian summit
Naypyidaw, Myanmar (AFP) May 11, 2014
Surging maritime tensions dominated a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders Sunday, with Vietnam calling on its regional neighbours for support in its worsening territorial dispute with China. The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) convened just days after both Vietnam and the Philippines locked horns with China in contested waters, stoking international alarm. A joint ... read more

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