A Philippine court on Monday fined nine Chinese fishermen $102,000 each after they were caught with hundreds of sea turtles in a disputed shoal in the South China Sea amid a festering territorial standoff between the two sides.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, believed to be rich with minerals and oil-and-gas deposits. The sea is one of Asia's biggest possible flashpoints. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims.
Philippine police arrested the fishermen and seized their boat off Half Moon Shoal, a disputed territory in the Spratly Islands within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone, in May. Two of the fishermen were sent home because they were minors.
After three months of trial, Judge Ambrosio de Luna found the fishermen guilty of poaching in Philippine waters and of illegal possession of endangered green sea turtles.
It was not immediately clear how the fishermen would find the funds to pay the fines, but they face six months' jail if they fail to pay up, time already served, suggesting they could even be released.
“We're merely imposing our laws,” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters. “We tried to look for ways to be lenient. I think they will credit whatever time has been served already.”
China protested against the arrests and does not recognize the trial, saying the nine were detained in China's territorial waters.
IHS Jane's, a leading defense publication, said on Friday satellite images show China is building an island on a reef elsewhere in the Spratlys large enough to accommodate what could be its first offshore airstrip in the South China Sea.
Del Rosario said the military had been asked to investigate.
The building work, if confirmed, would fly in the face of U.S. calls for a freeze in provocative activity in the South China Sea. Concern is growing about an escalation in disputes even as claimants work to establish a code of conduct to resolve them.
Two Vietnamese frigates were due to arrive in the Philippines on Monday on a goodwill visit, the first time Hanoi has sent warships to the archipelago.