Fish have no passport: Manage incident, help the fishermen, continue to develop the country for the Filipino people

Already on its second week, interest in and coverage of the Recto Bank incident remain intense. But while much commentary already segued into speculative, hypothetical and peripheral themes, various organizations and the government have stepped in to assist to repair the boat, provide financial and livelihood support, proceeding with investigation and diplomacy.  But less space has been devoted in discussing the obvious and required for a productive outcome… More than anything else, the incident demonstrates the need to have robust and effective dispute management and cooperative mechanisms.

The incident is neither the first nor will it be the last. While this may not be comforting to hear, such incidents regularly happen, TO and BY ALMOST ALL COUNTRIES, (including the Philippines).  Rational countries involved always find ways to manage them, rather than fall into, or be manipulated by political forces, to unnecessarily expanded disputes and even disasters. The challenge for the Philippines and China now is how to come out of this challenge better.

Indonesia’s policy of sinking foreign fishing vessels entering its waters strains its relations with neighbors Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and China. Malaysia arrests and metes out physical penalties; incidents involving Philippine fishermen and coastal security; Chinese fishing vessels entering waters of Korea and Japan; Vietnamese and other countries’ vessels doing the same, and not just for fishing. Other issues to deal with include extortions, kidnappings, piracies, anti-environmental activities, smuggling and illegal trades, terrorism and other activities — including by nonclaimant countries, especially in contested areas, occasionally create rifts in relations. Overlapping maritime claims and unilateral enforcement in trans-boundary traditional fishing grounds only exacerbate tensions. For the most part, however, such situations were taken for what they are — untoward incidents that need to be resolved diplomatically. While flames of nationalist sentiments, pushed further by political and geopolitical interests, may pressure governments for hasty, less studied instead of stronger  responses, leaders should have the prudence and foresight to speak and act accordingly, understanding that such incidents constitute only one aspect of their deep and broad ties with neighbors.

Parceling maritime commons, including shared traditional fishing grounds, is bound to breed conflict. This is especially so given the nature of the expansive seas lacking clear visible boundaries, the chase for fish, the average fishermen lacking equipment and understanding or disciplines, or even the presence of inter-nation rogue elements; and the absence of a regional regulatory framework for contested maritime spaces as is the case for the South China Sea. While many tend to emphasize the exclusionary aspects of Unclos-sanctioned maritime entitlements, few emphasize its appeal for coastal states, especially those surrounding a semi-enclosed sea, to engage in cooperation as provided for in Part IX, Article 123.

Ambassador Alberto Encomienda has advocated for a regional ocean governance approach in dealing with the South China Sea dispute. He is one of our country’s foremost minds in maritime and ocean affairs, having spent over a decade of his diplomatic career on legal studies of our sea claims.  Prior to his retirement in 2009, he had served as ambassador to Greece, Malaysia and Singapore.  He was also a member of the Philippine delegation to the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in the 1970s that would go on to establish Unclos. He received his advanced degrees on ocean law and policy from London and New York. He is also currently the executive director of Balik-Balangay.  He is soft-spoken and passionate for calm logic, practicality and fairnesss in endorsing policies for the common good.

Ambassador Encomienda  espouses improving and systematizing regional cooperation for the conservation and management of a shared marine environment as is the case of the South China Sea. Unilateral attempts at protecting the sea’s marine biodiversity and resources, such as fishing bans, while welcome and help to some extent, generally fail or fall short of their goal. This is because other states, despite their interest, refuse to acknowledge such efforts lest they be seen as acknowledging the other’s claims and diminishing their position; and there are in the governance, various dimensions that need addressing, as in the current incident.

Equally important is the ability of participants to disaggregate, to  properly manage and assess such maritime incidents productively.  The former envoy also supports Defense Secretary Lorenzana’s statement in a recent forum in Manila that such incidents should not necessarily be connected to security or sovereignty issues, and it would not be prudent to include third parties in the issue as this would only unnecessarily inflame and militarize the situation.  We are sure such third parties would loudly complain where we to include ourselves in, and publicly take sides in similar incidents in their territories.

It is high time for low politics approaches to tackle fishing and marine resource competition in the sea instead of hard sovereign-based measures. An ocean governance narrative provides a feasible way out. In the end, the sea’s boundless expanse should inspire countries bordering the South China Sea to try creative and innovative approaches in dealing with longstanding regional flashpoints, or those that highlight amity and cooperation and treat maritime commons as mankind’s heritage.

(Part of series): 
Ways forward on the Recto Bank fishing incident between China and the Philippines

Seizing the moment to talk of PCA ruling and peace and cooperation in the SCS

IDSI (Integrated Development Studies Institute) promotes productive, multidimensional perspectives that are pro-Philippines and pro-development. It works with a global network of organizations and businessmen, scholars, government officials, media, institutions and universities. IDSI welcomes logical feedback and possible opportunities for working together with compatible frameworks. (

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