Tense China-Philippines confrontation over Scarborough Shoal leaves fishermen in fear
Federico Josol remembers the first time he saw a Chinese helicopter buzzing ominously above his fishing boat.
It was 2013 and he was fishing at Panatag – or Scarborough Shoal – a triangular-shaped coral reef about 120 nautical miles from his home in Masinloc, a few hours northwest of Manila.
“There were two helicopters and four Chinese coast guards, and a big brown ship that looked like it had been used for war,” he recalls.
The helicopter continued to read a recorded message saying, ‘All Filipinos are leaving! “So we did it.”
Like many others from Masinloc, Mr. Josol had been fishing in the area for years, each leaving for three months at a time. Scarborough Shoal’s fish were plentiful and a good income was almost assured.
At first he was making hundreds of dollars from each expedition, far more than he could hope for in the overused waters around Masinloc.
But the helicopters were a worrying sign.
Fishermen fear confrontation with Chinese coastguard vessels
Over the past decade, Chinese Coast Guard vessels have become a regular feature of Scarborough Shoal and other traditional fishing grounds within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone.
Leonardo Cuaresma, president of the Federated Fishermen’s Association of Zambales Province, said some fishermen were afraid to return to waters they had fished for years.
“There is a real fear of the stalemate that has occurred [with the Chinese],” he said.
“They felt intimidated and many fishermen have reservations about their return.”
China has long claimed sovereignty over Scarborough and other barren shoals, reefs and islands in the western Philippine Sea. It lies inside the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone, but is also part of the wider South China Sea.
Beijing has relied on ancient maps to prove its historic ownership of a vast expanse of the South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal, which it calls Huangyan Dao.
But tensions over who claims the area reached their boiling point in 2013.
With Chinese ships appearing in the Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines filed a lawsuit against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
The international tribunal rejected China’s land claim in 2016, although it recognized that Chinese fishermen had been granted traditional fishing rights in the area that were “not extinguished.”
But he stressed that he was not deciding sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal and the tribunal noted that he would come to the same conclusion regarding the traditional fishing rights of Chinese fishermen if the Philippines were to prevent the fishing of nationals. Chinese at Scarborough Shoal.
Beijing continued to impose an annual four-month ban on fishing by other countries in the South China Sea, including at Scarborough Shoal.
On subsequent trips to the region, Mr Josol said, he and other Filipino fishermen were chased away by armed coastguard crews – in fact Chinese maritime militias – and felt like thieves if they entered the bench.
“We were scared because they had guns,” he told the ABC.
“Sometimes we could fish inside the bank for two hours. Then the coast guards would come in and order us out. But at least we got some takes there.
“You would fly here and there. We would fly what was [already] ours.”
Incursion of ships undermines relations of nations
For a few years, Mr. Josol completely stopped fishing at Scarborough Shoal for fear of being apprehended or even shot by Chinese militia.
Instead, he chose to fish in local waters closer to home, where fish stocks were already depleted and his income was only a fraction of what he could earn at sea.
The money was so short that he took a second job carrying passengers around Masinloc on a tricycle. But sometimes leasing the vehicle costs more than the money he earned.
While Mr. Josol and his wife struggled to cope, his wife looked for work. In 2016, Ms. Josol moved overseas and spent nearly four years in Saudi Arabia as a maid.
She says the loss of income from fishing left the couple no choice but to go their separate ways.
“I had to work abroad to help my husband,” she said.
“It was difficult to be away from the family, but it was necessary.
“I could earn 25,000 pesos ($ 672) a month. Five months’ salary here, I could earn in a month abroad.”
Ms Josol fears that if her husband cannot fish in Scarborough Shoal, she may have no choice but to return overseas.
“What he earns is barely enough,” she said.
“If they could fish there freely for, say, two or three months, he could earn about 20,000 pesos ($ 537) a month.”
Mr Josol returned to Scarborough this year, but for barely a week, and just before hundreds of Chinese ships and boats began to regroup in the disputed areas of the western Philippine Sea.
They included Chinese coast guards and suspected militia ships.
The continued incursion of Chinese ships has put unprecedented pressure on relations between the two countries.
In recent weeks, the Philippines has launched numerous diplomatic protests against a “massive and threatening presence” of Chinese ships in their exclusive zone and demanded their withdrawal.
But it had little impact. As of early May, after most of the earlier Chinese ships left, the Philippines South China Sea Task Force reported 287 more ships and boats appearing in its exclusive economic zone.
This month, China reiterated its claim to Scarborough Shoal in a retaliatory statement for an online attack by Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin. He also denied the presence of armed militias on one of his ships.
“Huangyan Island is the territory of China and its adjacent waters are under the jurisdiction of China,” he said.
“China urges the Philippine side to seriously respect China’s sovereignty and jurisdiction and to stop taking any measures that may complicate the situation.”
The Philippines has since ordered its fishermen to continue fishing in their territorial waters and ignore China’s annual ban.
President Rodrigo Duterte also pledged to maintain a defense of the country’s waters against Chinese incursions.
But many fishermen are afraid of being apprehended by the Chinese coast guard. They saw their livelihoods collapse and many large boat owners have now left the industry altogether.
“They sold their boats because they felt so hopeless every time there was a stalemate in Scarborough,” Cuaresma said.
“They felt like thieves fishing in their own region.”
But Mr Josol says he is less afraid of the president’s assurances and is determined to return to Scarborough Shoal regardless of any threat of harassment by Chinese ships.
“Scarborough is ours,” he said.
“Yes [the Chinese] know that there are no Filipinos going there, so they would think it really is theirs.
“There is no Philippine Coast Guard or Navy guarding it. So they could do whatever they want with it.”
Also, he says, the lure of some catch and higher income outweighs his fears of Chinese ships.
“When you go to Scarborough you are sure to eat,” he says.
“There are a lot of fish there. It’s a bench.
“Not like here in municipal waters where there is rarely a catch because there are too many people fishing.”