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Opinion

Phl leaves joint naval patrols; Palau, Ecuador repel Chinese poachers

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

Filipino soldiers have been withdrawn from joint naval exercises in the West Philippine Sea. President Rody Duterte has limited drills only to territorial seas 12 nautical miles from coast. “[He] has a standing order to us, to me, that we should not involve ourselves in naval exercises in the South China Sea, except our national waters, the 12-mile distance from our shores,” Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana said Aug. 3.

The defense chief was asked about Duterte’s stated “inutility” against China’s maritime incursions. Duterte had purported that nothing can be done about the nuclear-armed neighbor’s expansive sea claims. (Twelve nautical miles equals 22.224 kilometers; Philippine law reserves up to 30 kilometers of internal municipal waters for small fishermen.)

Lorenzana’s disclosure of Duterte’s order coincided with further Chinese trespasses in oil-and-gas rich Recto Bank, 80 miles off Palawan. Two ships, Xiang Yang Hong-14 and Haiyan Dizhi Hao-12, alternately station there, military sources said. XYH-14 was last seen Aug. 6-7, while HDH-12 lingered towards nearby China-grabbed Panganiban (Mischief) Reef. Chinese gunboats menace Philippine exploration vessels in Recto. In June 2019 a Chinese steel-hulled militia launch rammed an anchored Filipino wooden boat, then abandoned 22 fishermen thrown into the night sea.

China pounced on Duterte’s statement for propaganda. Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said “the Philippine decision not to participate in the drills showed that Manila was against such exercises in the South China Sea.” Foreign Sec. Teodoro Locsin Jr. cautioned Wang against over-reading the Philippine line. He said it referred only to present invitations for joint patrols, which Manila decided to “sit out.”

Duterte’s “defeatism” drew jeers. The Hague arbitral court already outlawed in 2016 Beijing’s unfounded “nine-dash line” sea boundary over all the SCS, experts said. Retired justice Antonio Carpio explained that WPS was the Philippine EEZ and extended continental shelf in the SCS, under world law. Bound by that law, China does not own yet illegally occupied and militarized seven reefs and Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, the court ruled.

Before 2016 Filipino sailors and marines drilled with United States, Japan and Australia navies. Aside from the three, Britain, France, India and Canada conduct freedom-of-navigation operations in the SCS. FONOPS ensure continued passage of $5 trillion in yearly global commerce. Two US aircraft carrier strike groups presently are drilling in the SCS, considered as international waters; a third carrier armada is in the Pacific east of the Philippines.

In July, Filipinos overwhelmingly opined that government must assert sea rights and ally with countries that can defend the Philippines. Trust in China sank lower than ever while that for America, Japan and Australia remained strong in the Social Weather Stations poll.

Chinese trawlers steal 1.2 billion kilos of fish a year from the WPS. Two million more kilos are killed per year from concreting of three reefs into island fortresses. The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are deemed Asia’s most bio-diverse triangle. Earlier polls showed nine in ten Filipinos opposing China’s reef grab and fish theft, and that government do something about it.

China poachers have reached as far as Ecuador, 8,760 nm (16,230 km) across the Pacific. For weeks now 260 vessels have been swarming outside the Galapagos EEZ. Ecuador has warned Beijing it would defend its maritime rights. Its navy has sought help from Pacific neighbors Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Peru to defend one of the world’s most bio-diverse sea and islands.

The Chinese trawlers stay just outside Galapagos Sea. But they lure sharks with miles-long baited lines and nets. A whale shark equipped with satellite trackers by environmentalists has vanished, feared caught by the poachers. In 2017 Ecuador interdicted one of three trawlers inside Galapagos. Authorities discovered 300 tons of fish, mostly endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks. Two in three hammerhead fins found in Hong Kong markets belong to slaughtered species from Galapagos.

Chinese poachers are also in West Africa, in the Atlantic, 6,320 nm (11,720 km) from home. Recently three confiscated trawlers escaped fines and court trial from Sierra Leone. Liberia has been invaded by six trawlers capable of hauling in the entire sustainable catch of species reserved for small artisanal canoe fishers. Fishers in neighboring Senegal and Ghana are protesting the drove of registrations by Chinese fishing craft.

Beijing feigns no control over the private Chinese vessels. But the trawlers cannot venture that far from home without financial subsidies, technological and technical help, and military security. The People’s Liberation Army-Navy openly escorts poaching ships and organizes maritime militia.

Palau, 2,380 nm (4,410 km), is a frequent victim of Chinese poachers. In 2013 Palau maritime police shot dead a Chinese ringleader. One ship was interdicted but three others got away. The small nation of 18,103 as of Sunday, Aug. 9, has only one patrol boat for 350 islands. It lost its only air patrol in the pursuit of the three fleeing trawlers. Yet Palau staunchly defends its seas and reefs against intruders. It regularly burns captured poaching ships by the dozen to display its determination.

Indonesia burned dozens of seized poaching ships the other week. The female fisheries minister no less leads patrols to capture Chinese poachers in the Natuna reefs, within Indonesia’s EEZ and 1,600 nm distant from China. The President has sailed naval craft to the area to assert Indonesian sovereign rights.

The last time the Philippines arrested Chinese poachers was in May 2016. The 25 crewmen of two seized launches were illegally in waters between Babuyan and Batanes islands. The inverted Philippine flag they were flying had alerted authorities.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8 to 10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

My book “Exposés: Investigative Reporting for Clean Government” is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Expos%C3%A9s-Investigative-Reporting-Clean-Government-ebook/dp/B00EPX01BG

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Gotcha archives: www.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha

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