Recto (Reed) Bank: Philippines exclusive
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - June 21, 2019 - 12:00am

In the brouhaha over the character of our response to the presence of Chinese fishing boat in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which led to the sinking of a Philippine fishing vessel, we might take a page from how Indonesia has approached this delicate issue. Like the Philippines, the handling of this issue has far-reaching implications over their broader bilateral relations with China.

The Scarborough Shoal was ruled by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) as a traditional fishing ground to which Filipino and Chinese fishing vessels are entitled to equally fish. The Recto Bank in contrast was affirmed by the PCA as well within our EEZ which entitles the Philippines the exclusive right to its resources – fish stocks and whatever else maybe under the sea bed such as oil and gas. Analysts and the media see this incident as another example of Chinese brazen attempts to exert sovereignty over the whole of the South China Sea made egregious by the fact that the Chinese vessel made no attempt to rescue the crew of the sinking boat, if indeed this was an accident.

This is where our officials, including Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin have focused on. He called the actuations of the Chinese boat as violating the “duty to render assistance” as enshrined in international law and in the International Maritime Organization’s International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the IMO Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue. Relatedly, Locsin for the first time made reference to the PCA ruling, saying the Philippines, “on the basis of UNCLOS, filed a carefully crafted and successful complaint at The Hague to clarify the legal situation in the South China Sea; to remove the confusion or the pretext of confusion on the part of those violating it.”

Like President Duterte, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has sought to balance public concerns over the South China Sea with the desire to attract Chinese investment. Foreign policy has never been his strong suit. But he has a popular figure in tough talking Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s Minister for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, who has been the “bad cop” to Widodo’s “good cop” in Chinese-Indonesian relations.

Following a number of seizures of Chinese fishing vessels in the waters off Natunas Island which are well within Indonesia’s EEZ and even summoning the Chinese ambassador, she said that while Indonesia respects China, it wants it to recognize that what Chinese boats were doing was not fishing, but “transnational organized crime”. Indonesia is keenly aware that China has been known to deploy fishing vessels and militias to pursue their territorial claims, but in this instance chose to treat it as a case of “illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing” which is classified as a transnational crime.  

The South China Morning Posts article quoting Pudjiastuti above said that since 2014, Indonesia has banned 10,000 foreign-registered vessels from fishing in its waters, half of which have been more than 500 gross tons (GT). “Hundreds of vessels have since been seized and sunk – in some cases blown up on Pudjiastuti’s orders, as a deterrent to others.” They include not just Chinese fishing vessels, but Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese and Taiwanese boats as well to show that they do not target a particular country and therefore the seizures are not politically motivated.

The tough policy on illegal fishing appears to be “paying off for the 20 million domestic fishermen in Indonesia…While total fishing in Indonesian waters has dropped by more than 25 percent and foreign fishing by 90 percent since Pudjiastuti imposed her bans in 2014, the size and value of the domestic catch has swollen from seven million tons to a predicted 13 million tons this year.”

Pudjiastuti has made the case that over-fishing and destructive fishing methods will lead to the depletion of fish stocks, including migratory species like yellow-fin tuna and cod. She said that sustainable fisheries management would have longer term economic benefits for all countries.

Here in the Philippines, Chinese fishing vessels have been caught fishing for endangered species in the Tubbataha Reef, destroying reefs to harvest giant clam shells, and even engaging in trafficking pangolin (an endangered species of anteaters) native to Palawan.

Increasingly, China is being held accountable by the global community for the largest consumption of endangered species for food or medicinal purposes – thanks to its expanding middle class - ranging from Napoleon fish, sharks, rhinos, Asian bears, pangolins and elephants. This seems to have struck a chord among China’s leadership who are eager to project itself as a constructive presence in the global stage.

In the case of fishing, China has responded that it would take action against overfishing, the industry’s overexpansion, and enforcing “zero tolerance” for those found to have violated the law.

I am not aware of any bilateral talks on sustainable fishing and marine conservation and if there are, making them public would be of tremendous value. Public condemnation of the destruction of the corals and seabed are bound to generate more visceral reaction from the international community. But it certainly does not help to dismiss this as “a simple maritime incident” that is being blown “out of proportion” as Pudjiastuti’s counterpart Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol was quoted as saying.  This is simply missing the point and eschewing the most powerful argument we can make for our side – that of protecting our patrimony for the benefit of our own fishermen and acting as custodians of the marine environment that we have been entrusted with by UNCLOS.

This is as much a public relations nightmare as it is a substantive one. The perception developing is that our fishermen are being given the short shrift in the name of the bigger benefit – promises of Chinese investments. This is a perception that the government must address or risk public backlash. Secretary Locsin’s statement at the UNCLOS meeting therefore was a major step to doing so. I texted and reminded him that the written word was far more effective and meaningful than “tweeting”. Keep it up Ted!!!

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