Manila (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Manila has charged 12 Chinese fishermen with "illegal fishing" after their boat ran aground on a coral reef protected and listed as World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The incident occurred on April 8 in the Sulu Sea, off the coast of the Philippines, where the fishing vessel flying the flag of Beijing ran aground against the Tubbataha Reef. The incident has raised tensions between the two countries, long embroiled in a border dispute in the South China Sea.
The 12 Chinese fishermen - immediately stopped by the Philippine Navy and brought to the ground - face up to 12 years in prison and a fine of 300 thousand dollars. An official of the Tubbataha Reef Park has confirmed the charges of trespassing in territorial waters and compromising a secure site, already damaged in recent months in a similar incident with a U.S. vessel. The fishermen - who claim to be innocent and speak of "a chance accident" - could also be charged with "attempted bribery," for trying to giving money to the coast guard in exchange for their freedom.
Officials sent by the Beijing government visited the group of fishermen, held in a police station in the province of Palawan. This is the seventh vessel flying the Chinese flag to be caught in the area since 2002. China and the Philippines have long been at the center of a territorial stand-off, which in the past year has repeatedly threatened to degenerate into open conflict. At the center of the struggle the Scarborough Shoal, a group of atolls located between the island of Luzon and the islands Zhongsha, but the Tubbataha reef belongs to the Philippine territory and has never been subject to dispute with Beijing.
In the Asia-Pacific region, China has the most extensive claims in the South China Sea. They include the Spratly and the Paracel Islands, which are uninhabited but rich in natural resources.
Claims to the area are also strategically significant not only because of its oil and gas potential but also because of its important shipping lanes. Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan stand in the way of Beijing's hegemonic stance. They are backed by the United States, which has its own strategic interests in the area.
The Philippines and Japan in the first place, but also Vietnam could become valuable allies in a scenario of open conflict in the Asia-Pacific region, where in recent months there have been a number of "incidents" between ships - military and fishing boats - flying different flags.