Filipino sentiment turning against China amid controversial maritime claim

A rising tide of negative sentiment.

Philippine is increasing maritime security after 200 Chinese fishing vessels entered the disputed West Philippine Sea.

By Liz Lagniton, Philippine correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

Amid the controversial claim of China in the West Philippine Sea—a part of the South China Sea— and the strong negative public sentiment against the Chinese, the authority has stepped up measures to secure the Philippine Rise, formerly called Benham Rise, in the Philippine Sea, which is more than 1,000 km away from China.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) started installing late-model buoys on May 12, two months after a fleet of around two hundred fishing vessels, manned by the Chinese militia, was discovered moored in Philippine waters off Julian Felipe Reef in the Spratly Islands.

The Philippine Rise, an underwater landform off the eastern seaboard of the Philippines island of Luzon, is 1,175 km from the Spratlys but China began to express interest and sent survey ships to the area in 2017. The following year, Beijing announced Chinese names for natural features in the Philippine Rise and claimed that the Philippines had no sovereignty over the area.

However, the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) ruled in 2012 that the extinct volcanic ridge is part of the continental shelf of the Philippines which was granted jurisdiction over the area.

A heritage of pristine ocean life

Initially named after an obscure American admiral who led a survey mission in the late 19th century, the Philippine Rise has long been known to Filipinos and is still called “Kalipung-awan” (loneliness in an isolated place) by fishers from the Catanduanes province.

The rise is believed to cover an area of 13 million hectares, larger than the island of Luzon, including massive coral reef growths still untouched by humans, the spawning and nursery grounds of the endangered Pacific bluefin tuna, and a seabed rich in minerals.

The Philippine government has thus declared the rise as a specially protected zone and prohibited mining and oil exploration in the area. 

“The presence of buoys in the Philippine Rise communicates that said vicinity waters are considered a specially protected zone. Hence, mining and oil exploration are strictly prohibited to preserve its rich natural resources,” Admiral George Ursabia Jr., the PCG commandant, said in a statement sent to Maritime Fairtrade. 

Ursabia said the 30-foot-long buoys, which the Philippines bought from the Spanish firm Mediterraneo Señales Maritimas, are equipped with a remote monitoring system that uses satellite technology to transmit data to the PCG headquarters in Manila. 

Philippine Rise, formerly called Benham Rise.

More enforcement effort needed

The global ocean conservancy group Oceana lauded the PCG move and said it is important in enforcing Philippine fishery laws amid the environmental damage being wreaked by parties in the Spratly maritime dispute.

“Alongside the deployment of ocean buoys in the Philippine Rise, which is a welcome development, the use of technology for its protection and conservation is quite important, such as the vessel monitoring systems for the enforcement of the national laws,” Gloria Estenzo-Ramos, vice president of Oceana Philippines, told Maritime Fairtrade.

Estenzo-Ramos stressed that Philippine laws require a road map for the conservation and protection of the rich and abundant ocean resources.

“The Philippine Rise is an acknowledged ecologically and biologically significant area that was declared as a protected marine resource reserve in 2018 by President Rodrigo Duterte under Republic Act No. 11038, or the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 2018. 

“The Philippine Rise is also part of the Fisheries Management Area 1, which has a management board, and should also have a Scientific Advisory Group which recommends the science-based intervention for its sustainable management,” Ramos added. 

“Our laws are in place and it is in the implementation to fight illegal fishing, poaching, destruction of marine habitats that need to be strengthened,” she added.

Oceana was part of a 2016 expedition to the Philippine Rise that included marine scientists from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and the University of the Philippines who explored the Benham Bank, the shallowest portion of the vast seamount.

Rising public opposition to “Pivot to China”

A growing number of Filipinos have become more expressive of their view that the greatest threat to the maritime resources of the Philippines is President Duterte himself and his vaunted “pivot to China” foreign policy.

Duterte’s political opponents and even ordinary Filipino fishermen have expressed fears that Duterte’s foreign policy toward Beijing has emboldened China to trample Philippine rights, a charge he more frequently and more vehemently denies.

“Benham Rise is exclusively Philippine property. I have made it clear to all, to the world. I will not allow any intrusion there,” Duterte said in a recently televised address.

But in 2018, Duterte’s aides said that there was nothing wrong with China naming natural features in Philippine Rise, although the act sparked protests in Manila.

“Well, of course, the right to innocent passage is everybody’s privilege, but to allow anybody even to just try to exploit or to look, I will not allow them to do that — because Philippine Rise belongs to the Filipino people,” Duterte said in his recent television appearance. 

Duterte even enlisted 97-year-old politician Juan Ponce Enrile, who has served various functions in the Philippine government since the 1960s, to appear with him in the two-hour television appearance. Enrile suggested to Duterte that the country get whatever it can from China on the West Philippine Sea issue and then use whatever it gets to strengthen the military capability and exploit the Philippine Rise. 

“Use it to strengthen our military capability and exploit Benham Rise, Philippine Rise, Mr. President,” Enrile said to Duterte who repeatedly addressed the elderly politician as “sir”. 

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