The Philippines is at the epicenter of a serious territorial confrontation with Beijing in the South China Sea. China’s broad claims, which include sovereignty claims over land parcels and neighbouring waters, have infuriated rival claimants such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.
The tribunal backed the Philippines’ lawsuit in July 2016, stating that China had infringed on the Philippines’ sovereign rights. China boycotted the proceedings, calling the decision “ill-founded. It declares that it will not be bound by it.
The Philippines is one of several countries that have opposed China’s release of a map this week that reiterates its claim to over 90% of the sea.
Manila may have previously whined subtly in response to China’s efforts to block its ships, but with the support of Washington and its allies, its voice has now grown to a roar.
“Of course, we are concerned about rising tensions,” said Jonathan E. Malaya, assistant director general of the Philippines National Security Council.
In recent months, the Philippines has granted the US access to major military sites, held the largest-ever bilateral military drills, and frequently condemned Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. Even as Philippine and Chinese coastguards engage in a now-familiar cat-and-mouse game in the disputed waters, Manila has revealed preparations to educate fishermen to protect their territory at sea.
The message is unmistakable. “Defending and making excuses for China’s aggressive behaviour should deem you unpatriotic and a traitor to the Philippines and to our people,” Jay Tarriela, a spokesperson for the coastguard in the West Philippine Sea, wrote on social media.
China’s claims, which encompass the whole South China Sea, pit it against not only the Philippines but also Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. These aren’t new, but they’re becoming louder and dicier.
The current episode centres around the desolate Ayungin Shoal, which is more than 620 miles (998 km) from mainland China’s southernmost shore and around 120 miles from Palawan Island.
Philippines won in the international court
In the last six months, Chinese boats have employed water cannons and lasers to keep the Philippine coastguard from approaching the shoal. The boats were transporting men onboard a decrepit cruiser named Sierra Madre, which Manila had stranded on a shoal in their waters. To maintain a presence on the shoal, it took a concerted and calculated move.
This is the region that the Philippines won in an international court in 2016, when a tribunal ruled that Beijing’s broad claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea lacked legal foundation.
These are profitable fishing grounds, and access to the shoal also implies access to the adjoining Reed Bank, which has considerable oil and natural gas potential.
Undaunted by Chinese strength, the Philippines attempted to supply supplies to its men on the Sierra Madre again, claiming success this time.
“It’s a David versus Goliath situation,” Mr. Malaya stated. “However, like David, we will continue to pound the table and double down on the need to protect the resources that are critical to the Philippines’ future.”
Beijing, though, does not view it that way. It alleges that the Sierra Madre is infringing on its sovereignty. According to a Chinese coastguard statement, the deployment of a water cannon on the Filipino vessel was “professional and restrained.”
Manila said it attempted to ease the situation by dialling a hotline established with China, but no one answered.
“We would like to resolve this issue,” Mr. Malaya added, but acknowledged that “progress is slow and there is currently no meeting of the minds.”
Spat with Beijing in the South China Sea
President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos has moved closer to Washington than his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who attempted to court rather than criticise China. He has also made public every spat with Beijing in the South China Sea. It is televised if the Philippine coastguard struggles to resupply the grounded ship on Ayungin Shoal. Most importantly, the United States is not far away.
The commander of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet stated earlier this week that China’s “aggressive behaviour” in the South China Sea must be addressed and checked.
Vice Admiral Karl Thomas promised Manila that the United States would support it in the face of “shared challenges” in the region. “My forces are out here for a reason,” he explained to Reuters. “You have to challenge people who are operating in a grey zone, in my opinion. When they start taking more and more and pressuring you, you have to push back, sail, and operate.”
Beijing retaliated by accusing the United States of misrepresenting the facts and fostering conflict in order to “project power.”
Washington was initially ambiguous about Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea, and several countries in the region are still unsure if they can rely on its message of support. A change in administration might also signify a change of heart.
But, for the time being, the US is signalling that it will support its Asian allies. And it’s not just the US that’s been making an appearance in the South China Sea.
Military Posturing in South China Sea
The United States, Japan, and Australia conducted joint drills with the Philippines last week, which Tokyo’s ambassador to Manila praised as a “significant moment of defence.
Forces from Australia and the Philippines also took part in the two countries’ largest-ever military exercises, which included a simulated beach landing and air assault drills near the South China Sea.
Nowhere else do so many nations come so close to a competing force, raising concerns about a miscalculation during these sea skirmishes.
For Manila, allied assistance carries the risk of intensifying the conflict. However, that is a danger that Palawan’s fishermen may be unwilling to face.
The Philippine Army Chief of Staff, Romeo Brawner, recently stated that the army intends to recruit and train fishermen as reservists. Larry Hugo, regional officer for the Kalayaan Palawan Farmers and Fisherfolks Association, laughed when asked if he knew any fisherman willing to join such a militia.
“No, no, we don’t want to join,” he stated emphatically. “It’s doubtful that China would notice us. Local fishermen will be targeted. China is growing more aggressive. They’ve also grown in number.”
China’s Fishing Militia Fleet
According to Mr. Malaya of the Philippines National Security Council, the Chinese are also utilising hundreds of fishing vessels near the Ayungin shoal as militia vessels.
“They are instruments of Chinese power, part of China’s military apparatus.” They serve to frighten and harass our local fishermen,” he added. Beijing, on the other hand, denies the existence of such a force.
Whether it does or does not, Benjo Atay says he is not willing to risk sailing near those waters, let alone fighting in them.
He’s been fishing at Ayungin Shoal since he was 14 years old. It is named after a near-endangered fish native to the Philippines that is well-known among low-income families.
For months, he and other fishermen from the dispersed islands around Palawan sailed alongside Chinese vessels in the same waters.
Mr. Atay’s worry for the crew’s safety exceeds the allure of a large catch.
“I don’t think we’ll go back. We are terrified. They may use their water cannon. We just have a wooden boat, of course. We’re terrified of going back there.” Palawan’s crystal-clear blue seas and white sands are ideal. But, in order to exist here, you must fish.
For years, the people of this island have carved out settlements from the island’s rocky bays and sandy shores: single-room cottages with corrugated iron roofs, where babies sleep in hammocks stretched over the kitchen.
Because the majority of the boats have been grounded due to the storm, some people have gone out on foot into the shallows with nets and buckets to look for shellfish. Others are spending their time repairing boats and nets.
The kids take the day off from school to compete on a makeshift basketball court surrounded by resting, upturned boats. Some of them aspire to be professional basketball players, but when asked if they want to be fishermen, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
“It’s getting harder each year,” Mr. Atay says. “How can we work properly if we are afraid? We can’t concentrate on fishing, so we just stay on the island where Filipinos are permitted.”
During these territorial disputes, these communities are resolute to keep their heads down. However, any outcome could affect their future.
Previously, that future was dependent on wind and tide. It now depends on the determination of international leaders.