China’s aggressive island-building in the South China Sea has drawn international attention to Beijing’s expansive maritime territorial claims.
This week it also drew a caution from the head of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift who said, “ships and aircraft operating nearby these features, in accordance with international law, are subject to superfluous warnings that threaten routine commercial and military operations.”
The Chinese military has on several recent occasions radioed warning messages to both military and private air and sea craft approaching within 22 kilometers of the artificial islands. It is also rapidly expanding and building on top of at least seven formerly shallow outcroppings of reefs and rocks, some of which now have airstrips and harbors that can handle military craft.
In a speech at a Cooperative Strategy Forum in Hawaii Monday, Admiral Swift did not name China as the country responsible for the situation. But he said the way claims have been enforced has intimidated fishermen who “trawled the seas freely for generations” and are now facing threats to their livelihoods.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan all have overlapping claims in the resource rich sea, on which trillions of dollars in commerce passes yearly. China has said it has “indisputable sovereignty” over all of the sea’s islands.
The Philippines is contesting those claims before an international tribunal at The Hague - saying Beijing has dramatically damaged the livelihoods of some Philippine fishing communities.
Junick Josol, a local fisherman from Masinloc town in the northern Philippines, has seen the impact from China’s growing assertiveness.
As the sun set on a recent Sunday and he prepared to head out to sea, Josol traveled 24 kilometers west of Masinloc town and spent the night catching small fish to sell at the market.
The tiny fish he caught are a far cry from the bigger grouper and tuna that Josol, a former commercial fisherman, used to catch off Scarborough Shoal just west of here.
“We would still like to fish there if only the Chinese would not shoo us away,” said Josol. “Of course it was a big help to our families, what we earned there. Now it’s gone.”
Impact on fishermen
Josol’s income has dropped to a third of what it once was, because of regular Chinese patrols that have increased along with Beijing's land reclamation efforts.
He said every few months one of his old commercial fishing mates braves the 201 kilometers to Scarborough to see if they can fish without being stopped. Three months ago, the answer was still “no.” China now warns off all foreign vessels that venture close.
Josol was first chased away in 2012 when Chinese surveillance and military ships intimidated a fleet of 40 Philippine fishing boats.
Now, his financial struggles are part of the Philippines case at The Hague that questions China’s claims to almost the entire sea, an area known as the "nine-dash line."
Cause for optimism
Jay Batongbacal, a professor of international maritime law at the University of the Philippines, said the Philippines has reason for optimism.
“It has a strong case I think with respect to the issues on the legality of the nine-dash line and the technical aspects of the case, which deal with the maritime entitlements of specific features, whether it’s a low tide elevation, whether it generates a territorial sea or not,” said Batongbacal.
The Court is expected to make a decision sometime next year.
Until then, fishermen like Junick Josol will have to choose between risking confrontation with the Chinese ships, or settling for more meager catches close to home.