Tag Archive | "ASEAN"

Map: Scarborough Shoal

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Fishermen caught out by politics of South China Sea – by Tomas Etzler | CNN

02 March 2013





    

Luzon, Philippines (CNN) – A year ago, a fisherman Efren Forones came back from fishing trips with up to three and half tons of fish. In return he was able to buy 15 to 20 kilos of rice for his family every month and was planning to send at least one of his six children to college.

Not any more.

He now returns with just 400 kilos of catch at best, meaning he can only afford one to two kilos of rice a month, while school for his children is an expensive luxury and out of the question.

The reason? He says he can longer fish in the fertile waters around Scarborough Shoal.

A cluster of uninhabitable sand banks and small rocks set in a shallow azure water lagoon about 130 miles (200 km) west from the Philippine island of Luzon, Scarborough Shoal is one of a number of territories at the center of an international dispute in the South China Sea.

Both the Philippines and China lay claim to it.

Tense standoff

The long-term tensions between the two nations escalated last April during a one-month stand off between the two nations, after Manila accused Chinese boats of fishing illegally in the area. When a Philippines navy vessel inspected the boats it found “large amounts of illegally collected corals, giant clams and live sharks” inside one of the boats, according to the Philippine government. Manila then reported that two Chinese surveillance ships had taken up position at the mouth of the lagoon, blocking the way to the fishing boats and “preventing the arrest” of the fishermen. The vessels stretched a cable across the mouth of the lagoon, which also prevented Filipino fishermen from going there, according to the Philippines coast guard.

Earlier this year, the Philippine government took its feud with China to a United Nations tribunal, a move that Beijing has rejected. In an article on state-run CCTV last month, China pointed to a code of conduct it signed in 2002, known as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, with fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It said the declaration expected that relevant disputes be solved through friendly talks and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.

That brings little comfort to the struggling fishermen in communities in west Luzon, the nearest region to Scarborough Shoal — also known as Panatag Shoal here or Huangyan Island to the Chinese. One of them is Masinloc, a municipality of 40,000 people, which relies on the seas for almost 80% of its income, according to the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. It says thousands of fishermen have lost their regular jobs as catches decline.

Forones is one of them.

The 52 year old has been fishing in the waters off Masinloc for 22 years. He lives with his family in a traditional bamboo house mounted on pillars above the sea. His youngest daughter is four years old. Forones does not own a boat but used to be hired as a fisherman and paid a minimum of $85 dollars for a trip. Nobody is hiring now. He has tried to rent boats on his own and fish with his neighbors, but the little catch they bring back barely covers the rental fee and fuel.

Map: Scarborough Shoal

He says the Shoal is the most important fishing ground in this region. “They (the Chinese) shoo us away, will not allow Filipinos to come near the area,” he says. “They are the only ones that can fish there, not us. We lost Scarborough and it is hard. We earn nothing.”

Beijing is unwavering in its claims. As recently as last month, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported that Chinese surveillance vessels were carrying out regular missions in the South China Sea.

The Xinhua report cited Liu Cigui, director of the State Oceanic Administration, as saying that China would continue the patrols “to secure the nation’s maritime rights and interests” in areas it claims as its territorial waters.

China’s claim on the area dates back to 1279 during the Yuan Dynasty, when Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing conducted a survey. Then in 1935, China declared sovereignty over 132 islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, with the Scarborough Shoal — or Huangyan — included as a part of the Zhongsha Islands, according to Xinhua.

However, Forones is in little doubt who the lagoon, which lies within what the Philippines declares as its Exclusive Economic Zone, belongs to.

“Of course it is ours. We own Scarborough,” he insists. “But China is trying to get it from us. Our government should fix that. We should seek help from the United States if the Philippine government cannot handle it alone.”

Nowhere else to go

Forones and his wife plan to stay in Masinloc, for now. He will try to start diving for shellfish. By selling clams, mussels and oysters, they can make around $5 a day. Enough to buy rice and other basic food to feed the family. “There is no other place where we can go. I will stay here, get shells from nearby and help my husband to make living,” Forones’ wife, Gemma, says.

The situation is similar in Subic, a town 55 miles (88 km) south of Masinloc. It used to host one of the biggest American naval bases outside the United States, before it closed in 1991.

Operators of the fishing market on the outskirts of the town of 90,000 say business is down 50% since the fishermen were blocked from fishing where they wanted to at Scarborough. Many fishermen here share a similar story to their counterparts further north.

“When we went there, a Chinese vessel, the Chinese Marine Surveillance blocked our path,” says Ronnie Drio, 46-year-old father of eight children. “As we managed to get past through it, it looked like they called another one because a different ship appeared and blocked our way again.

“That’s when we got trapped. Then a Chinese man stepped out. He looked like their highest officer. He flashed a sign that we had to leave immediately. We were kicked out like pigs.”

A number of fishermen have already left Subic and Masinloc and many more are considering it. One of them, 58-year-old Tolomeo “Lomi” Forones, is Efren’s cousin. He’s been a fisherman for 30 years but now makes a living as a motorbike taxi driver. He makes around $2 on a good day.

“Our income was higher when we used to fish at Scarborough. I even used to save money. But now we earn just enough for daily consumption and sometimes what we earn is not even enough to provide food.”

Dangerous waters

He still does occasional fishing trips but against his wife’s wish. Janet Forones wants to leave Masinloc and their low income is not the only reason: “Who would not get worried when they are out there? What if they get shot?” She was referring to the presence of the Chinese boats.

What puzzles the fishermen here most is the speed the whole situation has changed. Although the Philippine and Chinese governments have disputed each other’s claim to the lagoon for many years, they could fish at Scarborough alongside Chinese fishermen up until a few months ago.

“I do not know why they don’t like us or why they do not want us within that area. If Americans were still in the region, the Chinese would have never came to Scarborough because they would be scared. If our government allows the U.S. to come back over here, its OK with me,” she says, referring to Washington’s commitment to its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed last year.

But the solution to the dispute is as distant as ever. Litigation at the United Nations could last years. Most of the local fishermen do not have so much time. So while the governments squabble, many of these fishermen and their families will have to leave the only life they have known and start from scratch somewhere else.

 

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Why Manila is taking China to tribunal

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Why Manila is taking China to tribunal – by Andrew Billo | CNN

28 January 2013

by Andrew Billo | CNN - Last week, the Philippines sought to increase pressure on China over its claims in the South China Sea by filing a legal claim against the country under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas. While unprecedented, the Philippines knows that it cannot afford derailing the economic relationship with its third largest trading partner, China, and a verdict – to be issued several years down the line – will ultimately be unenforceable.

Why Manila is taking China to tribunal

Why, then, would the Philippines take this action now, given the irritation it might cause China, risks to economic relations, and the likely minimal impact it will have on altering China’s behavior?

 

One overarching reason is that in Asia, international relations, at least in the political sphere, are dictated largely by domestic affairs. The legacy of colonialism, and its associated web of international alliances, means that East Asian countries often distrust their neighbors and global powers as well. Distrust has created insular and highly nationalistic policies, a convenient tool for governments wishing to pin domestic governance and economic challenges on the legacy of foreign oppression.

The South China Sea is an ideal distraction from the domestic challenges of Asian countries. The territory is believed to hold significant energy resources, but how much is unknown. At present, countries in the region are sufficiently resourced to maintain their (slowing as they may be) growth trajectories. If domestic energy sources dry up, the challenge of maintaining peace will be even greater.

But the international news media is prematurely hyping the disputes and highlighting the verbal barbs being traded between countries at all levels. It’s true, as The Economist pointed out this past week, that a clash over territory would “imperil the region’s peace and its momentous economic advances.” But this isn’t going to happen, at least not yet.

More from GPS: Why Asia is arguing over its islands

Risking a conflict over the South China Sea area – and the coinciding economic collapse – would pose a greater risk for domestic political leadership, and so naval vessels and troops remain largely stationed at home.

So while a statement released by the Philippines read, “One cannot put a price in the concerted effort of the Filipino people and government in defending our patrimony, territory, national interest and national honor,” the country would be misguided in pursuing anything more than legal action.

In the Philippines, and other countries in the region, the price for maintaining “national honor” with force is prohibitively expensive. Blustering, however, ultimately serves domestic political interests as creating a unified, national stance is quite valuable for political parties wishing to secure their futures in a tenuous political environment.

The South China Sea dispute has long evoked nationalist feelings. In 2007, protests over the South China Sea curiously materialized in Vietnam, and then quickly faded. One Sunday in front of the Chinese Embassy and Consulate in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, for example, protestors took to the street, a strange sight in Communist controlled Vietnam, where public protest is typically curtailed.

Police stood by, watching the protestors picket, then, like they had been queued to take action from the top, the police quietly shooed the protestors away. It made for a couple of nice snapshots in local and international papers, but none of the protestors objected to putting their placards away.

A week later, the protests seemed to become more organic in nature, as comments labeling China as the oppressor were bandied about the blogosphere, as well as the streets. China objected, but Vietnam’s “crackdown” on the protests seemed almost to have been staged. The protests were a reminder to the Vietnamese people – most of whom have no direct stake with respect to the dispute – about China as the historic aggressor that the Vietnamese military successfully thwarted in 1979.

Fast-forward again to 2013. In 2007, U.S. interests were squarely in the Middle East and South Asia, centered on Iraq and Afghanistan. Interest in the Asia Pacific was being curtailed. Now, the U.S. government’s return to the region further complicates the South China Sea matter, and vexes regional governments unsure of what lengths the U.S. would take in order to stand up for its regional allies. Is America willing to step up and intervene on any of the bilateral disputes, and will U.S. ships in the region act as a stabilizing force?

But ultimately it is nationalist forces within the most vociferous claimant countries of the Philippines, Vietnam and China that can be blamed most for present tensions for three reasons.

First, by asserting sovereignty – even if illegitimately – over a disputed area, a government is able to project an image of power and influence that reinforces its authority. Second, the contradictory assertions of sovereignty by the various claimants help to create an “enemy” that governments can cast as a scapegoat for certain domestic issues and deflect hostility toward. This also engenders greater appreciation for those in office, as it creates a situation that encourages citizens to rely on their governments for protection. Third, the contentious claims regarding the South China Sea shift focus in the direction of international problems and away from domestic ones.

Despite nationalism’s propensity for polarizing states, entering into sustained military conflict would undermine these governments’ ability to fulfill societal demands for economic growth, institutions, and security as described above. Protracted military conflict is unlikely owing to the financial costs and risks to property and life. For this reason, greater conflict will not emerge in the near-term.

The parties will continue to agree to disagree, but the conflict is  unlikely to escalate much further in the next decade at least.  In the meantime, it is unfortunate that opportunities to cooperate on a range of regional issues will be hampered.

CNN Editor’s note: Andrew Billo is an assistant director with the Asia Society in New York. The views expressed are his own.

(Original version is available at CNN)

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