MASINLOC, Philippines — When nations duel over reefs, rocks and islets, people are going to get hurt, and in the South China Sea dispute, that means the fishermen here who once wrested a living from the contested waters.
Gunmen in a Chinese speedboat drove Macario Forones, for instance, away from a favorite spot called Scarborough Shoal, and now his boat, the Marvin-1, sits useless in the grass and weeds above the high-tide line, and he sells someone else’s fish from a stall in the local market. Efrim Forones now dives for clams in the bay, making about one-tenth of what he earned when he fished the sea. Viany Mula says he was set upon with a Chinese water cannon when he ventured out to the shoal in his boat, and now he makes deliveries around town on a motorbike, barely earning enough each day, as he puts it, to buy the rice he needs.
“I really want to fish the shoal,” Mula said one recent day. “It’s a very rich fishing ground. But that’s not possible now.”
For generations, the South China Sea was a regional common. Fishing boats from all of the surrounding countries would roam its waters, pausing now and then to trade cigarettes or potatoes or gossip.
But then Vietnam, followed by the Philippines, began staking claims to some of the islands, and now China is moving in, in a big way. Beijing is building up the outposts it has established, enlarging islands that it controls and claiming exclusive rights to fishing grounds.
The smaller, poorer nations can’t put up a real fight for the access to the sea that they long enjoyed.
“That’s not for us,” Mula said. “We have nothing.”
But the Philippines does have the United States behind it, after a fashion. The Americans are making more visits here, and stepping up naval patrols and overflights — and in the process, the South China Sea dispute becomes something bigger than a contest for fish. It looks more and more like a geostrategic confrontation between the two great powers, China and the United States; that’s certainly how the Chinese characterize it.
The U.S. military has long been a source of anguish, self-doubt and defiance for the Philippines, a former U.S. colony. Many Filipinos are encouraged by recent U.S. attention to the maritime dispute, but they wonder whether the Americans give much thought to the Philippines and the people who are paying a price as the dispute deepens.
A third of the residents of Masinloc have depended over the years on fishing for their livelihoods, said Mayor Desiree Edora. Scarborough Shoal, a half-day’s sail from shore, was a refuge from storms, a gathering place for fishermen from all over and a home to abundant grouper and giant clams. Now, the Chinese have barred foreign boats. It is like being thrown out of your own house, she said.
“We can’t replicate what Scarborough Shoal can provide,” she said.
The Philippines took China to court — an international tribunal in The Hague — two years ago over competing claims in the sea. China refused to participate; a decision is expected next year, but it probably will be unenforceable. The Philippine move may have provoked the Chinese into trying to cement their claims by occupying and building up as many spots in the sea as they can, but officials in the Philippines say they had no choice after efforts to negotiate came to nothing.
The governor of Zambales province, Hermogenes E. Ebdane Jr., said he wonders what China’s ultimate goal is. “No one’s going to war over fish,” he said. His constituents, the fishermen, will have to find something else to do. But if this confrontation is about something bigger, Ebdane said, it’s unclear what role the Philippines might have. There’s a new defense agreement with the United States, but, he said, neither side seems to have thought through the implications for the murky weeks and months ahead.
At the Defense College in Quezon City, on the outskirts of Manila, an entire wall in the lobby is given over to a painting that depicts the massacre of four dozen U.S. soldiers by Philippine insurgents at Balangiga in 1901. A diorama up a staircase shows Filipinos battling Spanish conquistadors and fighting against the Japanese in World War II — alongside Americans.
The United States seized the Philippines from Spain in 1898 and held it until 1946. The U.S. military continued to keep permanent bases here until 1991.
The legacy is a deep ambivalence toward the United States. But the U.S. Navy is the one force that is willing to challenge the Chinese and keep up regular patrols in the region. An agreement signed last year would allow the U.S. military a standing presence here, rotating forces onto Philippine bases. The agreement is held up by a lawsuit in the Philippine Supreme Court.
Washington has stepped up visits and patrols, and it has made much of joint training exercises and the donation of used military equipment.
“That is not to protect the Philippines but to protect their own turf,” said Roilo Golez, a member of the country’s House of Representatives. U.S. military aid, worth about $40 million a year, is nothing but a token, he said.
The Philippine armed forces, in this nation of 100 million, remain in woeful shape. It is an article of faith that the government was caught napping when China began making its moves in the South China Sea.
“We remain quite dependent on allied help, and that is not good,” said Rafael Alunan III, former secretary of the interior. “The focus of the Philippine government has been on politics, politics, politics, at the expense of national security. China is taking advantage of our inertia and lack of assertiveness. We are presenting ourselves as unworthy before friend and foe.”
Walden Bello, founding director of a group called Focus on the Global South, said his country “is right back to its role in the Cold War, when it played the part of handmaiden to the United States.”
But military officials here say they are unsure of the U.S. commitment if hostilities should break out. The United States and the Philippines have a mutual defense treaty pledging assistance if either is attacked, but Washington doesn’t recognize any nation’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, including the Philippines’. Naval analysts in Washington say the U.S. response to conflict there would depend entirely on the circumstances.
“We may have overestimated how the United States will come to the rescue,” said Chito Santa Romana, an expert on China. “We may have underestimated Chinese resolve.”
The two biggest vessels in the Philippine navy are former U.S. Coast Guard cutters, retrofitted with deck guns, and of little use in standing up to the Chinese. The government, in any case, has no desire to provoke China into a military confrontation.
That leaves the fishing fleet as the country’s best means of maintaining a presence in the parts of the South China Sea that Beijing claims. Philippine — and Vietnamese — boats challenge the Chinese when and where they can, until the Chinese coast guard drives them off. It is waterborne civil disobedience.
“These are small, subsistence fishermen,” said Evan P. Garcia, undersecretary for policy in the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs. “They’re not a threat to anybody. And it’s not as if they just went there yesterday.”
The fish they’re after may be the other big casualty of the dispute. The tensions over the years have kept anyone from getting good data on fish stocks or devising a conservation plan. Hundreds of millions of people live around the South China Sea and eat its fish. The Marine Stewardship Council, with an office in Singapore, says that the humpback wrasse and bluefin tuna populations are close to collapse. Edgardo Gomez, a marine biologist in Manila, said that the Chinese have wiped out the giant clams on Scarborough and that their construction work is destroying reefs that support the bottom levels of the sea’s food chain.
“You have tons and tons of marine life in and around those reefs that are now gone,” he said.
The hatch is being shut on a way of life. The United States and China are either pursuing strategic advantage or practicing destructive gamesmanship, depending on the perspective. Filipinos have to live with that — with the “odd detour,” as Garcia put it, that brought them here.
Viany Mula would trade his motorbike in the blink of an eye for a chance to return to sea. But that is not going to happen.
Englund visited the Philippines on a Jefferson Fellowship, supported by the East-West Center.