The maritime dispute between China and the Philippines simmered anew as a Chinese coast guard (CCG) vessel made dangerous and unprofessional maneuvers too near to a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ship in the disputed Scarborough Shoal March 2.
The PCG said it was the fourth time a CCG vessel made such a dangerous maneuver that supposedly violates the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.
The incident prompted the Philippine government to file a diplomatic protest as top Philippine lawyers urged the government to file against Beijing another case similar to the one Manila won before the inter-governmental Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in 2016.
Retired Philippine Supreme Court magistrate Antonio Carpio, one of the lawyers behind the PCA case, said another arbitral case could lead to ground rules in Scarborough Shoal as well as compensation for the income losses of Filipino fishermen.
Common fishing ground
Carpio explained that Scarborough Shoal has been determined to be a common fishing ground for the Philippines, China and Vietnam by the 2016 PCA ruling.
“If it’s a common fishing ground, the first thing to do is agree on the ground rules. There must be ground rules but China even refuses to discuss this,” he said. “We can ask Vietnam to join us in that arbitration so we’ll get more countries on our side. This is really a question of getting the world’s opinion on your side. We can isolate China by getting the world opinion on our side very clearly and that should be our game plan.”
“What we can do is to bring another case to compel China to agree to ground rules,” Carpio said in a television interview. “We will quantify the losses of our fishermen because they cannot freely fish there. We will quantify the losses and claim damages.”
Shortly after the incident, the Philippines resumed military drills with the United States and launched the largest Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) war games involving nearly 9,000 Filipino and American soldiers in exercises over 12 days.
Previous military exercises, which were suspended as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared a pivot to China, focused on potential conflict in the South China Sea.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin then went to China to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on April 3. The Chinese foreign ministry reported after the meeting that both countries “believe that maritime issues should be put in a proper place in bilateral relations.”
The ministry also quoted Wang as saying “China always stays committed to prioritizing the Philippines in its neighborhood diplomacy.”
“The two sides should eliminate interference, and calmly and properly manage differences, so as to prevent the overall China-Philippines relations from being affected,” Wang added.
The ministry also said Wang pledged Beijing’s future support for key infrastructure projects in the Philippines. Wang even promised to provide more coronavirus assistance, including vaccines, should these be needed, but there was no mention of compensation for the income losses of Filipino fishermen.
PH coast guard patrols to continue
Nonetheless, Vice Admiral Artemio Abu, commandant of the PCG, said the deployment of assets and personnel in the area will continue.
“We are fully aware of dangerous situations at sea, but these will not stop our deployment of assets and personnel in Bajo de Masinloc, Philippine Rise, and other parts of the country’s exclusive economic zone,” the PCG chief said. “As long as (Filipino fishermen) feel safe seeing us during their fishing operations, we know that we are doing our job well,” he added.
Violation of international law
Abu insisted, however, that the incident showed China’s clear violation of the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. This was also stressed by Albert del Rosario, former Philippine foreign secretary, saying that CCG’s action was “deliberate, malicious, and violated international maritime law and agreements.”
Del Rosario, who led the Philippine team in the PCA arbitration, said China defied the agreement in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) framework, including the 1972 international regulations.
“We condemn the malicious and reckless action of the Chinese coast guard… At the same time, we wish to commend the officers and crew of the Filipino vessel for their courage in conducting patrols around Bajo de Masinloc,” Del Rosario said.
Philippine Senator Grace Poe also lauded the PCG for actively patrolling the Philippine waters and immediately reporting the incident to concerned authorities. However, Poe said the call for the national government to urgently act on the issue should not be drowned by the ongoing election campaign season.
“Its presence poses risks to the safety of navigation and impedes the Filipinos’ rights to benefit from the marine wealth in our exclusive economic zone,” Poe said.
Despite China’s steady presence in Scarborough Shoal, there are now more Filipino fishers in the area to earn a living. This was confirmed by PCG spokesman Commodore Armand Balilo in a telephone interview with Maritime Fairtrade where he said there are increasing presence of Filipino fishermen who are casting nets in Bajo de Masinloc.
“Yes, based on our last monitoring. The good thing is, that they can fish freely even if the Chinese coast guard is there. We don’t see any problem yet,” Balilo said.
But Balilo said that although the number of Filipino fishermen has increased, there are also more Vietnamese in the area.
“I just don’t have any figures right now, but based on (our) observation, it seems like there are more Vietnamese. If for example, we are around 45, the troops have seen more Vietnamese there. There are Chinese too.”
For his part, Abu considered the increasing presence of Filipino fishers as a significant milestone in promoting maritime security and maritime safety in Bajo de Masinloc.
“Seeing more Filipino fishing boats in Bajo de Masinloc is proof of our intensified efforts to safeguard Filipino fishermen who consider fishing as their primary source of livelihood,” the PCG chief said.
The PCG also assured Filipino fishermen that they will remain active and present in the area. “Precisely the reason why we have deployment, to accompany our fishermen to ensure they are okay, and no untoward incidents will happen. So far, we have not received any complaints,” Balilo said.
“That’s why we have patrol operations. Our mission is to monitor the Filipino fishermen and check their condition while they are conducting fishing operations there.”
Balilo also assured that PCG vessels will continue to patrol Panatag Shoal and other Philippine waters. “We take advantage of the good weather, even in the West Spratly, we also have ships deployed there. We are in tandem with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.”
Calls for freedom of navigation in West Philippine Sea
Fishers’ group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) also asserted that China should “recognize and respect the fishing rights of Filipino fisherfolks in the West Philippine Sea.”
“Being the front-line casualties of China’s military annexation in our territorial waters, we support any call for recognition and exercise of freedom of navigation, especially right to fish in the West Philippine Sea,” Pamalakaya spokesperson Ronnel Arambulo said.
“It is Beijing that should be compelled to honor the decision of the international arbitration which invalidated its nine-dash line claim,” he added. “They never respect this legally-binding decision of the international arbitration in favor of the Philippines.”
“We assert to China our freedom of navigation, especially our right to fish in our territorial waters. Beijing has no right to dictate who can stay and who will be ejected from the seas that they have no legal and political claim,” the group added.
The organization also warned that “any untoward action from Chinese forces would be met with strong, collective, and diplomatic actions from our fisherfolks who stand side by side with patriotic Filipinos.”
Photo credit: A screengrab from the Philippine Coast Guard video showed dangerously close maneuvering by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel in disputed Scarborough Shoal.