Yet another flashpoint has flared in what was until recently a glowing era for Philippine-China relations.
GMA Network, a major Philippine media outlet, broadcasted a video which purportedly shows Chinese coast guard forces harassing Filipino fishermen by taking part of their catch near the Scarborough Shoal, a contested feature in the South China Sea.
One of the fishermen, Tirso Atiga, exclaimed in the short video: “Are we slaves of China?”
As the president of the Calapandayan Fishermen’s Multipurpose Cooperative, a small community-based group that aims to protect the interests of Filipino fishermen operating close to the contested shoal, Atiga lamented, “It seems that our government has not acted on [China’s aggression].”
According to other Filipino fishermen interviewed by local media, they face constant extortion, intimidation and forced “barter trade” with Chinese para-military forces, which often confiscate their best catch by fiat.
“Every time the Chinese coast guard get the fish from Filipino fishermen, they would exchange it with noodles, cigarettes and, more importantly, water, because they are always running out of water,” complained Romel Cejuela, another fishermen shared. “It’s against our will but we have to accept that since they are the ones who have power over the area.”
The footage immediately provoked a nationwide outcry, placing the government in another tough spot in justifying its China accommodation policy. Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque sought to calm the public uproar by stating how the government “was assured by the [Chinese] Ambassador that this is not the policy of China.”
He also reassured that Beijing has started an investigation into the matter and will punish the responsible parties accordingly. “[I]f the allegations of the fisherman are proven, there will be penalties that will be imposed on the Chinese Coast Guard,” claimed Roque, portraying the reported harassment as an isolated incident that will be accordingly dealt with by Chinese authorities.
Duterte’s spokesman also called on Beijing to punish “rotten eggs” among their coast guard ranks, while portraying the incident as both isolated and unacceptable.
In late-2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte negotiated an informal agreement with China whereby Filipino fishermen are allowed to have greater, if not unrestrained, access to the contested shoal. China has maintained administrative control over the shoal since a months-long standoff with the Philippines in 2012.
Both sides have also discussed the possibility of joint patrols in the area, as well as the creation of a marine protection zone in order to preserve endangered species and corals in the area, which have been devastated by destructive fishing practices, especially by Chinese fishermen, in recent years.
In exchange, the Duterte administration pledged to adopt a more cordial approach towards China by, among other things, downplaying the landmark arbitration award at The Hague in 2016, which nullified the bulk of Beijing’s nine-dash line claims over the South China Sea, as well as downgrading maritime security cooperation with America.
The continued harassment of Filipino fishermen, as well as the almost total absence of Philippine Coast Guard patrols in the area, has called into question the wisdom and utility of Duterte’s China policy.
The Philippines’ interim Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Carpio has called on the government to file a formal complaint against China, arguing that the harassment of Filipino fishermen violates international law.
“The arbitral ruling stated that we have a right to fish in the territorial sea of Scarborough Shoal…But Chinese Coast Guard vessels have been preventing them from fishing inside in the lagoon. So that’s already a violation of arbitral ruling,” said Carpio, who played an instrumental role in the country’s arbitration case against China under the previous administration.
“We can demand damages for economic loss that our fishermen suffer. That’s the course of action that we should take if we want to protect the interest of our fishermen,” he added.
Still, Duterte’s China policy is becoming highly politicized. Opposition legislator Gary Alejano, a former naval officer with ties to the defense establishment, recently accused the Duterte administration of pressuring the Philippine military to halt its patrols in the South China Sea — a claim that has been strongly denied by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
“This [command] was protested by the AFP because that is contrary to their mandate as the protector of the people and the state and its goal of securing the sovereignty of the state and the integrity of the national territory,” the opposition legislator claimed.
“The military had to compromise with the [presidential] Palace to limit patrols in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to once a month instead of completely halting it,” he added.
“For the record, there is no such order coming from the Commander-in-Chief. As a matter of fact, our maritime and aerial patrols continue—contrary to such information allegedly received by the party-list congressman,” countered the AFP spokesperson Edgard Arevalo.
He assured that the military “continues and will continue to perform its mandate” of patrolling the Philippine waters.
During an ambush interview with the local media, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano maintained, “We are assuring you that we are taking all diplomatic action” against China’s reported harassment of Filipino fishermen.
He defended the government’s accomodative policy towards China, arguing that it’s the best way to ensure “results.”
The frantic efforts to downplay the situation and the unusually tough language of some officials against China, underscore the growing political pressure faced by the Duterte administration.
That explains why Duterte recently handed down three “red lines” on Filipino claims in the South China Sea that if any power violated he said would lead to war.
Harassing Filipino fishermen, however, was not one of those lines – though militarizing the Scarborough shoal was. But even with those markers, China’s behavior at sea continues to threaten the fragile rapprochement Duterte has tried hard to maintain.