Exclusive: At strategic shoal, China asserts power through control, and concessions

By Martin Petty / April 09, 2017/ Reuters

Far out in the South China Sea, where dark blue meets bright turquoise, a miles-long row of fishing boats anchor near Scarborough Shoal, backed by a small armada of coastguard projecting China’s power in Asia’s most disputed waters.

China still calls the shots at the prime fishing spot and has boosted its fleet there, nine months after an international panel ruled its blockade of the lagoon was illegal.

Beijing rejected that ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which invalidated China’s claim of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.

But the presence of Philippine boats dotted between Chinese vessels shows a degree of compliance with the ruling. Overtures from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is negotiating billions of dollars worth of loans, investments and trade deals with China, may have helped.

China stopped repelling Filipino boats in October and allowed them to fish on the edges of the rocky outcrop, 200 km (124 miles) from the Philippines. Now it appears to be easing restrictions further.

Reuters journalists last week entered the Scarborough Shoal itself – the first access by foreign media since China seized it in 2012 – and witnessed dozens of small boats shuttling day and night into the lagoon to capitalize on its rich fish stocks.

“It’s good that we’re now allowed inside, it helps me to support my family’s needs,” said Vicente Palawan, treading water inside the lagoon, a dive mask on his head and fishing spear in hand.

“I don’t want the Chinese here, because there’s so many, it’s affecting the way we fish… but I’m willing to share, I don’t want to be thrown out. At least I can fish.”

The coral outcrop is synonymous with the struggle for regional power, and a strategic tinder box. Along with China and the Philippines, Scarborough is claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.

Despite its concessions, China’s presence here is growing, with a larger contingent of coastguard and fishing boats than was indicated in satellite imagery late last year.

That fuels concerns by Manila that Beijing may have ambitions for the Scarborough Shoal similar to the artificial islands it built and fortified in the Spratly archipelago, inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE

For now, there is a cordial coexistence between the Filipinos and Chinese who anchor side by side less than 100 meters (yards) from the 46-km (28-mile) triangle of rock that barely pokes above the water.

Chinese in straw hats zig-zag from boat to boat, using hand signals to barter with Filipinos for cigarettes, liquor and fish.

Small boats hum as they move in and out of the lagoon, through a buffering line of coral that has for centuries provided fishermen with bountiful catches and haven from storms.

In crowded, rickety boats, Filipinos are outnumbered about ten-to-one and complain of competition from the beefed-up Chinese contingent.

“We used to fish for a few days, now it’s a few weeks, but at least we have something,” said Ramil Rosal, a boat captain and fisherman for 20 years.

“China is fishing more, and Filipinos have to share with them. But they don’t bother us. Some are helpful.”

A half-dozen vessels from the China Marine Surveillance enforce their rules in an area the arbitration court in The Hague declared a traditional fishing site for all countries. It did not rule on sovereignty of the shoal.

Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo said the improved access was “certainly in line with the arbitral ruling”. Read more…

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