Philippines encourages fishermen to enter fishing grounds during China’s declared fishing moratorium

The Philippine government, which has a sovereignty dispute with China in the South China Sea, has taken another step in defending itself against China: the Philippines has told its huge fishing fleet to ignore Beijing’s annual fishing ban in the South China Sea.

The Philippines’ South China Sea Working Group said on May 4 that this year’s fishing moratorium “does not apply to our fishermen,” according to Philippine media reports. News website reported that officials “encouraged” fishing boats to trawl for fish at sea.

China has unilaterally imposed a fishing moratorium in the northern part of the sea from May 1 to Aug. 16 since 1999 to improve marine ecology, Xinhua, the official Communist Party news agency, said last month. More than 50,000 Chinese vessels will be suspended, Xinhua said.

Anti-China sentiment gradually rises

Experts say growing public pressure against China in the Philippines has prompted the government to publicly reject the fishing moratorium, a potential boon for the domestic fishing industry, which employs about 2 million people.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte forged a new friendship with China in 2016 by setting aside a sovereignty dispute, but Chinese vessels continue to appear in waters claimed by Manila and Duterte’s political allies. Those allies, who plan to take power after Duterte steps down next year due to term limits, are expected to follow public opinion.

“There is a lot of politics here, so the Philippine government cannot be seen to be tacitly submitting to Chinese pressure,” said Eduardo Araral, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s School of Public Policy.

Jay Batongbacal, an international maritime professor at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, said the fishing industry wants the government to take “a stronger stance” in the South China Sea. He said they complain they rarely see their country’s navy or coast guard. Four Philippine Navy ships departed this week to support fishing boats in the Spratly Islands.

Badonbakar said, “Since there is more public pressure, they are showing some visibility by sending ships and also encouraging fishermen to fish.”

China claims about 90 percent ownership of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, which is prized for its rich fisheries and fossil fuel reserves. Of the six governments that dispute sovereignty over the sea, China is the most militarily powerful. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim sovereignty over the South China Sea waters.

China’s unilaterally established no-fishing zone includes waters used by Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Dwindling relations with China

Duterte visited Beijing in 2016 to set aside sovereign justice. China then pledged $24 billion in aid and investment for the developing Southeast Asian country. But Duterte angered Filipinos after that visit, saying China was too powerful at sea for the Philippines to resist.

Officials in Manila have said little about China’s previous fishing bans. After so many years of bans, Alaral said, Philippine fishing boats know where it’s safe and where it’s not.

China has stirred public anger in the Philippines by letting hundreds of fishing boats pass near small islands in disputed waters controlled by the Philippines on at least two occasions. In March, a fleet of up to 220 vessels anchored near Whitsun Reef (known as Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines and Bull Yoke Reef in China) in the Spratly Islands. Philippine officials asked the ships to leave the area.

Until 2016, the Filipinos had never considered China a friend, instead continuing to align themselves militarily with the United States since the 1950s. Manila officials now aim to retain their Visiting Forces Agreement with Washington this year, despite Duterte’s vow to scrap it.

For Duterte, this is an opportunity to show that he is determined to stand up to China in an appropriate way,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security researcher at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Chinese response kept low profile

China has not publicly countered the Philippine government’s urging of fishing boats to ignore the fishing ban. Alaral said China would likely only ask all types of boats to leave the no-fishing zone, rather than seize them to avoid further anger from Philippine officials.

Tensions in Sino-Philippine relations are likely to bring Manila closer to Washington. Beijing is unhappy with the U.S. presence in the South China Sea, even though the United States has no territorial claims there.

Aaron Rabena, a researcher at the Manila-based Pathways to Progress Asia-Pacific Foundation, believes China could get its fishing boats off Whitson Reef and let Filipino fishermen fish in the no-fishing zone.

“If the Chinese fishing boats pull out and they don’t enforce the fishing ban on us, there will be relative stability,” he said.