A protester at a rally on the Philippines' 120th Independence Day at the Chinese consulate in Manila on June 12, 2018. The protests focused on China's bullying and militarization in the West Philippine Sea. Photo: Richard James Mendoza/NurPhoto

Once again, the Scarborough Shoal dispute is threatening to torpedo Philippine-China relations. Two years into office, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is facing a widespread public backlash over reports that the Chinese coast guard is controlling the contested shoal and surrounding areas and routinely harasses Filipino fishermen.

In a widely-watched documentary broadcast on the GMA Network, a major Filipino television channel, Filipino fishermen accused Chinese para-military forces of forcibly taking up to 30 kilos of their precious catch – worth thousands of dollars – in exchange for expired noodles and cigarettes.

Images of impoverished Filipino fishermen, helplessly letting Chinese forces confiscate the pick of their catch, has stirred public anger in a country where Beijing is seen through a prism of deep suspicion and age-old prejudice.

Under the Philippine Baselines Law of 2009 (Republic Act 9522), the Scarborough Shoal, along with the Spratly chain of islands, are classified as a “regime of islands under the Republic of the Philippines.”

According to influential Philippine maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal, the shoal is “one of the oldest known fishing grounds of the Philippines, from its awakening as an independent nation-state. Previously, it was known as Scarborough Shoal, and published maps of the Commonwealth Period even included Scarborough Shoal among the natural resources of the Philippine Islands, particularly in its inventory of fishing banks.”

He maintains that the Philippines has exercised continuous and effective sovereignty over the shoal since the colonial period, when the country was under the administration of Spain and, later, the United States. China, however, maintains that the shoal is part of its island possessions in the South China Sea since ancient times.

Since 2012, after a months-long naval stand-off with the Philippines, the Chinese coast guard has been exercising effective control over the shoal. Amid improved bilateral ties with the Philippines under President Duterte’s administration, however, China has relaxed restrictions on the entry of Filipino fishermen in the area.

Joint patrols

Based on an informal agreement in late-2016, shortly after Duterte’s state visit to China, the two countries also discussed the possibility of joint-patrols in the shoal as well as establishing marine protection zones, certain areas where aquatic resources are endangered due to illegal and destructive fishing practices, i.e. the use of dynamite on coral reefs.

The reported harassment of Filipino fishermen, however, has belied the effectiveness of Duterte’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ towards China.

In an impassioned press conference, the Mayor of the Municipality of Masinloc in the province of Zambales, which counts the Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc) under its jurisdiction, called on the Filipino president to take a tougher stance against China and, accordingly, defend Filipino fishermen and their livelihood.

“All we ask from our beloved president is for our countrymen to live in peace, for them to fish without being bullied, and to be able to seek shelter [in the shoal] when the waves are strong,” Mayo Arsenia Lim told reporters.

Thousands of families in her municipality, hailing from a long generation of fishermen, rely on the shoal for their subsistence and earnings.

“We shouldn’t have to ask for permission … [our] position is they [fishermen] have a right to make a living and to fish in peace,” Lim said.

Her statement came shortly after China announced it would allow Filipino fishermen to access the area out of “goodwill” and that the abusive coast guard officials would be held accountable if proven guilty by an internal investigation.

‘No fish left anymore’

The Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) released a June 15 report, which has shown extensive damage to coral reefs in the areas under the control of Chinese coast guard forces. The report did not directly hold Chinese fishermen responsible, yet it still provoked anger among many Filipinos.

“By the way it looks, there’s no fish left there anymore. The holes in the coral reef are also gone. There is no fish left because there is no more food there,” a senior BFAR official told the media.

“Some might grow back if left alone, but it will take 40 years before it grows back. It will take a long time. No one regulates fishermen there and that is why they can [practice] illegal fishing modes like dynamite fishing,” the official added.

Interim Chief Justice Antonio Carpio called on the Philippine government to file complaints against China for coercive occupation, environmental damage and violating Philippine rights in the area. The Duterte administration, however, has insisted on the efficacy of maintaining a ‘quiet diplomacy’ towards China.

“When President Duterte came in, the Philippines was speaking loudly, and maybe correctly so at that time against China, and harnessing public support and internationalizing the issues, [while] China, on the other hand, was gaining ground … completely controlling Scarborough [Panatag] Shoal and then of course the building and everything,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said in an interview with CNN Philippines.

“The Aquino strategy is loud, but what’s the end? What will happen [if we follow the Aquino approach], our fishermen can’t fish, our agricultural products will not enter their market, our tourism will not [grow],” he added, arguing that the current course of cordial dialogue with China was the best way forward.

The chief diplomat said that together with China and Vietnam, there have been discussions of a trilateral agreement on jointly patrolling the area and protecting endangered aquatic resources. During an earlier press conference at Malacanang, however, Filipino fishermen said, there is “no one from the Philippine Coast Guard who is able to go there … They were all Chinese.”

Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Captain Armand Balilo only confirmed “conducting regular maritime patrols” in the area, but far enough away to only make a visual observation of the shoal. This was a tacit admission that China continues to control the shoal, with the Philippine government scrambling for ways to justify its friendly policy towards its giant neighbor.

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