Filipino fishermen pin hopes on UN tribunal in dispute with China

The incident at Scarborough Shoal is part of a long-running territorial row that sits at the heart of a UN-backed tribunal expected to rule in the coming weeks.

Epifanio Marqueza, a captain of a reef-fishing fleet, and his vessel (back left), at the port in Masinloc in Zambales province, Philippines, in June 2016. A recent incident at the Scarborough Shoal that Filipino fishermen say hosts some of the world’s most abundant marine life, is part of a long-running territorial dispute at the heart of a UN-backed tribunal expected to rule in the coming weeks. Ted Aljibe / Agence France-Presse
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INFANTA, PHILIPPINES // Jonathan Almandrez was chased away from the rich fishing grounds of a South China Sea lagoon by a Chinese patrol — something he hopes will stop happening if the Philippines wins an international legal case against Beijing.

The incident at Scarborough Shoal, a necklace of reefs and rocks that Filipino fishermen say hosts some of the world’s most abundant marine life, is part of a long-running territorial row that sits at the heart of a UN-backed tribunal expected to rule in the coming weeks.

“I was angry at their gall to shoo us away when we were clearly inside Philippine territory,” said the 30-year-old, who used a pseudonym as he did not want to be identified for fear of potential Chinese repercussions.

Almandrez — who provided mobile phone footage of the encounter — said for two hours on June 7, Chinese coastguard patrol boats circled a wooden outrigger carrying 10 Filipino fishermen.

The patrol boats got within about two metres of the vessel, which had been fishing the reefs just outside the shoal before daylight betrayed them to the Chinese.

“Transfer to another area! No fishing inside,” the Chinese patrol personnel shouted in English, according to Almandrez.

“You go [back] to China because this is the property of the Philippines,” Almandrez shouted back.

The Filipino crew eventually left when a much larger Chinese vessel began to approach. They feared it would fire water cannon at them.

Video footage shows two patrol boats flying Chinese flags and with the English words “CHINA COAST GUARD” on the side.

Local fishermen say the shoal, 230 kilometres off the main Philippine island of Luzon, has been their hunting ground for generations.

It is 650km from Hainan island, the nearest major Chinese land mass, but falls within the ill-defined “nine-dash line” that marks the extent of Beijing’s claim to control of nearly all of the South China Sea.

The reefs and shallow waters mean one fisherman can easily spear 200 kilograms of fish in just over an hour, according to Almandrez and others from Infanta, one of the main Scarborough Shoal fishing towns on Luzon.

It also provides vital shelter for stranded fishermen during storms.

China took control of the shoal in 2012, following an encounter with the Philippine navy’s flagship and Filipino coast guards.

Since then, non-Chinese fishing boats approaching the lagoon mouth have routinely been given an ear-splitting horn blast from a ship stationed inside. Those who refuse to leave run the risk of being hosed down or even rammed, according to Filipino fishermen.

“The water spray was so strong it destroyed one of our styrofoams,” Felix Lavezores, 36, said, recalling an early May water-cannon attack at the lagoon mouth that split an ice box used to store their catch.

An expedition to the shoal costs around 90,000 pesos (Dh7,100) per boat, including fuel, supplies and crew salaries — money the boat’s owners cannot make back if they are forced to hightail it home with an empty hold.

The Chinese at times also cut anchor cables, putting Filipino boats at risk of running aground, according to Filipino fishermen.

China claims it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of its Asian neighbours.

When asked about incidents at the shoal, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying repeated China’s long-standing position.

“We have said that Scarborough Shoal is China’s intrinsic territory. The Chinese coastguard vessels’ law enforcement activities in China’s sovereign territorial waters are legitimate and beyond reproach,” Ms Hua said on Tuesday.

The competing territorial claims have for decades made the South China Sea a potential source of regional conflict, and tensions have risen sharply in recent years as China has sought to expand its presence in the disputed areas.

Aside from taking control of Scarborough Shoal, it has undertaken unprecedented land-reclamation works in the Spratly Islands, one of the sea’s main archipelagoes that are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Critics of China fear the artificial islands could be put to military use, and to establish effective sea and air control over some of the world’s most important shipping routes and waters that are believed to sit atop significant oil and gas deposits.

The Philippines, the most vocal critic, has lodged a complaint with a UN-backed tribunal at The Hague, asking it to rule that China’s claims to most of the sea violate international law.

Regardless of the outcome, China looks unlikely to let Philippine fishermen return to Scarborough Shoal.* Agence France-Presse