Only a few days after Chinese leader Xi Jinping promised to “find a solution” that would allow Filipino fishermen to go to its traditional fishing grounds in the South China Sea, China’s law enforcement vessels drove local fishermen away from Ayungin Shoal.
There was video footage showing a Chinese coast guard ship shadowing the wooden Filipino fishing vessel and a rigid hulled boat hovering around a few meters away as the Filipino sailed towards Boxall reef.
The incident demonstrated that China was only paying lip service when it came to allowing the Philippines to fish in the disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Ayungin Shoal is within the country’s exclusive economic zone and an international tribunal declared in July 2016 that the Philippines has the rights to explore and exploit the economic resources in the area.
It also ruled that China was illegally controlling the area, nullifying its excessive nine-dash-line claim on almost the entire South China Sea.
The incident showed that Xi Jinping made an empty promise to Ferdinand Marcos Jr during the latter’s state visit to Beijing. It only goes to show that the $22 billion investment pledges will end up the same way – a broken promise.
The strength of Xi Jinping’s words cannot be trusted. China’s coast guard has not been obeying its leader. It continued to enforce what it believed was China’s right to protect its own economic resources in its own territorial waters. However, it is illegal and unlawful.
The Philippines is helpless in protecting local fishermen from China’s continued harassment. The Marines who were stationed at a rusting naval transport ship, BRP Sierra Madre, that ran aground on Ayungin shoal, could not come up with something to protect local fishermen.
They were just a few meters from where the local fishermen were catching fish but did nothing.
The Philippine Coast Guard also reacted late. It said it would deploy more ships to the disputed waters but it has limited capability to be able to guard local fishermen from harassment.
The Philippine Coast Guard does not have enough platforms to patrol and guard the country’s economic zone. It has only two 94-meter long vessels and 10 Japanese-built patrol boats. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) also has a limited number of smaller vessels to patrol the vast South China Sea.
Most of these vessels cannot operate more than a week in open sea due to limited fuel and provisions. These vessels are designed for coastal operations.
The Philippine Navy also has limited assets. It has two frigates, a corvette, three ex-Peacock class offshore patrol vessels, and three ex-USS Hamilton class cutters that consume large amounts of fuel.
The Philippines also lacks anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capability to threaten Chinese vessels patrolling close to the country’s territorial waters.
From Union Banks in the Spratly chain of islands, the Chinese vessels are inching closer to Palawan in the Sabina Shoal and Reed Bank area.
These coast guard and militia vessels have been virtually blocking Philippine vessels’ movements to the South China Sea, making it hard for local fishermen to venture into traditional fishing grounds.
It also makes it hard for Philippine public vessels to deliver food, fuel and other supplies to troops stationed in nine features in the Spratly.
China is choking the Philippines little by little. It wants the Philippines to give up its occupied features without a fight.
Marcos raised the maritime dispute and the plight of Filipino fishermen during his meeting with Xi. The issue has impacted on energy and food security because China has been preventing unilateral oil exploration and fishing activities in the West Philippine Sea.
Chinese fishermen have unhampered fishing operations that the local coast guard cannot stop, raising international concerns because of their unreported, unregulated, and illegal fishing operations.
It is not only depleting fish stocks but destroying fish habitats and the environment, threatening the area’s ecosystem. The Philippines should not wait until the Chinese fishermen “invade” the country’s territorial waters once they have overfished Spratly islands.
The Philippines should not let the Ayungin harassment incident pass without demanding an explanation from Beijing. It should hold Xi Jinping to his word to find an amicable solution to the fishing access of local fishermen.
Marcos should immediately act to ensure the safety and security of local fishermen. He should protect the livelihood of these poor and marginalized fishermen.
Perhaps, it’s time he gave up his position as agriculture secretary and allow somebody to work full time for the job. He is a failure as a farm minister.
But the fishing situation in the Spratlys is not solely his problem. Xi Jinping has to honor China’s commitment to finding a win-win solution to fishing rights. Xi must order China’s coast guard to stop harassing local fishermen in the disputed waters.