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Ways forward on the Recto Bank fishing incident between China and the Philippines

DESPITE relative calm in recent years, the June 9 incident in the Recto Bank highlighted the continuing perils for fishers in the West Philippine Sea and how this affects relations between competing claimant states. Four important takeaways can be drawn from the incident — need for sobriety, due process, calibrated response and regional cooperation.

Territorial and maritime disputes are always difficult to resolve. This is especially so if there are more than two parties involved as is the case for the six-way South China Sea row. Hence, for longstanding flashpoints, it is not unusual for parties to settle for the less-ideal but nonetheless feasible and practical dispute management and functional cooperation tracks. This includes: 1) setting up mechanisms for communication and dialogue to address incidents should they surface; 2) regular confidence-building measures and joint exercises to build trust among frontline maritime actors and 3) concerted efforts in conserving regional maritime commons. In the South China Sea, progress, though much incipient, has been made on the first two, but much work remains to be done on the third.

While the incident underscores the hazards fishers face when they venture into sea contested by other countries, it is not the first experience involving the Philippines. In May 2016, three Filipino fishers fishing near Philippine-held Commodore Reef were arrested and beaten by Malaysian Navy personnel before being released. Malaysia compensated the three fishers, promised to discipline their personnel involved and a protocol was reached providing for the safe return of apprehended fishers. In August 2018, four Filipino fishers were sentenced to four months’ imprisonment and whipping for entering the waters of Sabah. In April 2018, 31 Filipino fishers detained in Indonesia for months finally returned home. In 2010, as many as 5,000-7,000 fishers from Mindanao were jailed in Indonesia. Last year, 14 Filipino fishing vessels were sunked by Indonesia, along with other fishing vessels from neighboring countries, for allegedly fishing in Indonesian waters. Countries involved downplay the impact of these incidents and numerous others to overall bilateral or regional ties.

Indeed, the nationalist Art Valdez of the all-Filipino Mt. Everest and Balangay expeditions points out that for most of our history, “the SEAS UNITED US, before the Western colonialists came and divided the world into borders.

Due to their potential to whip up nationalist sentiments and complicate relations with neighbors, fishing incidents are and should always be handled delicately. Sobriety should restrain political rhetoric and action so as to avoid further inflaming public passions. This obviously was not observed in the recent Recto Bank incident where Filipino fishing boat Gem-vir was hit.

President Rodrigo Duterte recognizes the ability of fishing incidents to affect relations with neighbors, as had been the case between Indonesia and Vietnam last April.
Hence, in two occasions (November 2017, November 2016), he personally led the send-off of Vietnamese fishers caught poaching in the waters off northwestern Luzon. He also personally talked to Chinese President Xi Jinping (October 2016) that paved the way for our fishermen to return to Scarborough Shoal after several years hiatus.

Judgment should also be suspended until a thorough investigation was completed. This, too, was not observed. As such, conflicting statements referring to the incident as accident, allision, collision or even ramming confused many. Words carry weight as they may presage intentionality.

In most instances, parties involved will launch their own investigations. In the case of Manila, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea came up with its report on Thursday, June 13. China also promised a serious and thorough probe. Within two days of the incident’s announcement, China found out that one of their fishing vessels, Yuemaobinyu 42212, was responsible. Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua promised they will educate and punish their erring fishers. He added: “Incidents happen even in the best regulated family. We hope this incident could be held in a proper context.”

Based on an extensive assessment of the facts, calibrated response should be undertaken. Appreciating the longstanding ties, both sides should discuss compensatory measures for the damaged Filipino fishing boat and crew that suffered. More importantly, all parties should orient and train their fishers and maritime agencies to abide by international norms and rules. Preventing a similar scenario from happening again is the best way forward. As lives are at stake, mariners and fishers should not leave an affected ship regardless of who is responsible for the incident.

In most coastal states washed by the strategic semi-enclosed sea, fishers, especially artisanal, remain among the poorest. Hence, their misfortune of getting entangled in jurisdictional squabbles by competing governments always generate popular sympathy. While fishes that fishers follow know no boundaries, fishers have to mind artificial borders created and enforced by maritime agencies of claimant countries. Furthermore, despite the Philippines having multiple maritime boundaries with several neighbors, it has only reached one delimitation agreement (with Indonesia after 20 years of negotiations) that the Senate just approved early this month.

Some concrete steps toward confidence-building and functional cooperation in the South China Sea already took place as written about by our foremost expert in maritime and ocean affairs, retired ambassador Alberto Encomienda (https://www.balikbalangay.com/). In 1994, the Philippines and Vietnam agreed to cooperate for marine scientific research and environmental protection. From 1996 to 2007, four expeditions under the Joint Oceanographic and Marine Scientific Research Expedition took place. The second phase opened doors for the participation of China that the latter welcomed. Preparatory meetings and technical consultations between scientists from the three countries took place, but high politics and a change in government eventually impeded what could have been a tripartite undertaking.

This shows that while [fisheries] industry and [marine] science may stress and advocate the value of collaboration, the political will among claimant states remains critical in pursuing cooperation.

Part 2 of the series: “Fish has No Passport…

IDSI, or Integrated Development Studies Institute, promotes productive, multi-dimensional 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. <idsicenter@gmail.com>.

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