It is fishing season once again in the South China Sea and, as in past years, clashes between Chinese fishermen and those of their maritime neighbors are on the rise.
China is aggressively asserting its sovereignty over the disputed waters while some of its neighbors are also defending their claims with diplomatic might.
Days after a 32-vessel fishing fleet from China headed for the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest. On May 10, the Philippines said China had a military frigate, two surveillance ships and some fishing boats around Second Thomas Shoal, in an area that Manila says is within its 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.
Foreign Affairs Spokesman Raul Hernandez called the presence of the Chinese vessels provocative and illegal.
“The concern of the Philippines is that this area, this shoal, is really an integral part of our national territory,” Hernandez said.
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This is the second year in a row that military vessels have escorted a Chinese fishing fleet so far south at this time of year. China bans fishing near its own shores from mid-May until August to permit the rehabilitation of fish stocks. That's when the fleets head out into waters claimed by China's neighbors: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The fishing ban causes special problems for Vietnam, which refuses to recognize the prohibition in waters it claims as its own.
That has led to regular clashes, some of them violent. This week, Hanoi filed a diplomatic protest saying one of its ships was rammed by a Chinese vessel on May 20.
Li Mingjiang, a security expert at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the Chinese excursions to the Spratlys have been going on for decades. But he said the tension has escalated since last year.
“In the context of… this more tense relationship between the Philippines and China since April last year when the Scarborough Shoal conflict broke out… the Philippines seems to be more vigilant of any Chinese activity,” Li said.
A year ago, Philippine maritime officials tried to arrest Chinese fishermen in waters off Scarborough Shoal, which Manila says is well within its exclusive economic zone.
Hernandez said this year’s Chinese fishing trip may appear to be routine.
“But this is all part of their strategy to aggressively claim the whole of the South China Sea,” he noted.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has consistently said China's sovereignty over the Spratlys -- which it calls the Nansha Islands -- is "indisputable" and that its behavior is “beyond reproach.”
While it wages a diplomatic fight, the Philippines is also talking tough. Last week, President Benigno Aquino announced $1.8 billion in new funding for the country's notoriously weak military and said the Philippines will always stand up to anybody who threatens it.
But Carl Thayer, a security analyst with the Australian Defense Force Academy, said Aquino will have a hard time backing up his rhetoric.
“Until their force modernization takes hold, which is years away, there’s nothing much they can do except make public protests," Thayer remarked.
Rommel Banlaoi of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research said Manila is pushing that strategy as hard as it can.
“Now there is a systematic attempt to really use all possible diplomatic channels, all possible diplomatic means, to protect the Philippines’ interest in the South China Sea,” he said.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said the Philippines is ready to file more protests for as long as the perceived intrusions take place.